US data this week

Despite a softer tone to US equity markets at the end of last week market tensions appear to be easing, with news over the weekend of the ousting of Ukraine’s President helping in this respect. Although US equities ended the week slightly lower the overall tone to risk appetite was firm.

The G20 meeting proved to be a non event in terms of immediate market impact although the aim to lift GDP by more than $2 trillion over the next five years appears to be ambitious to say the least. However, at least focus has shifted from austerity to growth in terms of G20 thinking.

Last week’s release of the February Markit US PMI manufacturing survey which revealed a stronger than expected reading helped to allay some concerns afflicting markets over the pace of US growth giving markets reason for optimism. Indeed, in general markets have attributed recent weakness in US economic data to adverse weather conditions rather than a shift in growth trajectory.

Unfortunately this week’s US data releases are unlikely to be particularly helpful in shaking off growth worries. Although February consumer confidence is likely to be unchanged at a relatively high reading (tomorrow) declines in new homes sales (Wednesday) and durable goods orders (Thursday) in January will not bode well while a revision lower to US Q4 GDP (Friday) will highlight a slower pace of growth momentum at the end of last year than previously recorded.

The US data is likely to be bond friendly helping to cap gains in Treasury yields as well as restraining the USD. Nonetheless, the message from a plethora of Fed speakers on tap this week will likely be one of continued willingness to maintain the current pace of tapering, with recent and current weakness in economic data being shaken off as bad weather related.

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Data releases in focus

For a change the markets may actually concentrate on data releases today rather than political events in the eurozone. The October US retail sales report and November Empire manufacturing survey are likely to paint a less negative economic picture of the US. The data will help to dampen expectations of more quantitative easing in the US but we will be able to hear more on the subject from the Fed’s Bullard and Williams in speeches today.

Overnight the Fed’s Fisher poured more cold water on the prospects of further QE by highlighting that the economy is “poised for growth”. While speculative data in the form of the CTFC IMM data shows a drop in USD sentiment to its lowest in several weeks we do not expect this to persist. The USD will likely benefit from the data today and we see the currency retaining a firmer tone over the short term especially as eurozone concerns creep back in.

The vote by German Chancellor Merkel’s party to approve a measure for a troubled country to leave the EUR opens up a can of worms and will hit EUR sentiment. But rather than politics there are several data releases on tap today that will provide some short term influence on the EUR, including Q3 GDP and the November German ZEW survey. FX markets will likely ignore a positive reading for GDP given that the outlook for Q4 is going to be much worse. The forward looking ZEW survey will record a further drop highlighting the risks to Europe’s biggest economy.

T-bill auctions in Spain and Greece may garner even more attention. Following on from yesterday’s Italian debt sale in which the yield on 5-year bond came in higher than the previous auction but with a stronger bid/cover ratio, markets will look for some encouragement from today’s auctions. Even if the auctions go well, on balance, relatively downbeat data releases will play negatively for the EUR.

When viewing the EUR against what is implied by interest rate differentials it is very evident that the currency is much stronger than it should be at least on this measure. Both short term (interest rate futures) and long term (2 year bond) yield differentials between the eurozone and the US reveal that EUR/USD is destined for a fall.

Europe’s yield advantage has narrowed sharply over recent months yet the EUR has not weakened. Some of this has been due to underlying demand for European portfolio assets and official buying of EUR from central banks but the reality is that the EUR is looking increasingly susceptible to a fall. EUR/USD is poised for a drop below the psychologically important level of 1.35, with support seen around 1.3484 (10 November low).

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

European agreement at last

Following a drawn out period of discussions European officials have finally agreed on a haircut or debt write off of around 50% of Greek debt versus 21% agreed in July. In addition the EFSF bailout fund will be leveraged up to about EUR 1.4 trillion, with the new EFSF scheduled to be in place next month. The haircut for Greek debt is aimed at ensuring that Greece’s debt to GDP ratio drops to 120% by 2012.

The reaction of markets was initially favourable with EUR/USD breaching 1.40 and risk / high beta currencies bouncing. I doubt that the upward momentum in EUR can be sustained, however, with plenty of questions on the mechanics of the deal, especially about leveraging the EFSF fund, remaining. I suspect that the EUR may have already priced in some of the good news.

Data releases, especially in the US are offering markets more positive news. Following on from firm readings for US durable goods orders and new home sales, today’s US Q3 GDP expected to reveal an acceleration in growth to a 2.5% annual rate, will help to alleviate recession fears to some extent. The USD may benefit if the data reduces expectations of further Fed quantitative easing especially given the recent comments from some Fed officials indicating that the door is open to more QE.

In Japan attention was firmly fixed on the Bank of Japan policy meeting and the prospects for FX intervention to weaken the JPY. In the event the BoJ kept its overnight rate unchanged at 0.1% as expected and expanded its credit program by JPY 5 trillion and asset purchase fund to JPY 20 trillion.

The measures are aimed to easing deflation pressure but the real focus in the FX market is whether there is any attempt to the weaken the JPY. I am currently in Tokyo and here there is plenty of nervousness about possible FX intervention being imminent. Speculation of such intervention will likely help to prevent USD/JPY sustaining a drop below the 75.00 over coming days.

EUR to struggle to extend gains

Once again the USD index failed to break above its 100-day moving average, its third failure to do so over recent weeks. The USD is now trading below its 20- and 50- day moving averages and looks vulnerable to further weakness. However, much will depend on the travails of the EUR and how quickly the boost to this currency fades following last week’s Greek austerity plan approval.

The USD was helped last week by the relative move higher in US bond yields, which saw 2-year yield differentials between the Eurozone and US drop below 100bps for the first time since the beginning of April. Given that the six-month correlation between 2-year bond yield differentials and EUR/USD is at a very high level, it is reasonable to assume that this will remain an important factor driving the currency pair going forward.

The yield differential narrowing seen last week has reversed as German yields have moved sharply higher this week, however. This is in large part attributed to more positive developments in Greece but nonetheless, it has helped to push the EUR higher.

Ratings agencies may yet spoil the party for the EUR, with S&P’s warning that Greece’s debt rollover plans may put the country’s ratings into select default, fuelling some caution. Should ratings agencies downgrade Greek debt to junk it will not only be international investors that will re-think their exposure to the country but the European Central Bank (ECB) could also stop holding Greek debt as collateral for loans although an official from the Bank noted that this would happen only if all the major ratings agencies downgrade Greek debt to default.

Attention is now turning to the implementation risks of austerity measures and asset sales. While Greece’s contribution to eurozone GDP is small, the pain of implanting more budget cuts will push the economy deeper into recession and reveal the stark divergences in growth in the eurozone at a time when the ECB is hiking interest rates.

In reaction to such concerns there is likely to be a series of measures announced over coming days and weeks to boost growth according to Greece’s finance minister. As the S&P comments and implementation/growth concerns suggest, the EUR may struggle to extend gains, especially as the currency is looking increasingly stretched at current levels, with this week’s ECB rate hike largely in the price. Top side resistance for EUR/USD is seen around 1.4598.

Asia Helps The Euro Again

Following the pressure on markets over recent days there is some relief filtering through markets today although sentiment remains fickle. Weaker than expected US April durable goods orders data failed to dent confidence with equity markets ending in positive territory overnight even though the data added to a plethora of global data disappointments over recent weeks.

Once again the EUR has been saved by Asian demand, this time not directly for the EUR itself but by reports that China and other Asian investors will purchases EFSF bailout bonds, with China apparently reported to be “clearly interested” in the mid June sales of Portuguese bailout bonds, with Asian investors representing a “strong proportion” of the buyers.

Despite the reassuring news about Asian official interest in eurozone debt, problems in the periphery remain a major drag on the EUR. Developments at the two day G8 heads of governments meeting in Deauville and various speeches by officials from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), European Union (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB) regarding Greece’s travails will be particularly important for EUR direction.

The various speakers are likely to maintain the pressure on peripheral countries to continue their austerity programmes in order to gain external support. Nonetheless, there still appears to be conflicting comments about what Greece will do with regard to its debt burden. Whilst some EU officials have espoused the benefits of extending Greek debt maturities on a voluntary basis, the ECB has steadfastly stood against any form of restructuring.

Other than the events above, in the US the second reading of Q1 GDP will be released. The consensus looks for an upward revision to a 2.1% annual rate from an initial estimate of 1.8% due mainly to an upward revision to inventories. US weekly jobless claims will also be of interest especially as the recent increase in the 4-week average for jobless claims has provoked renewed fears about the jobs market recovery.

US Dollar On The Rise

There are plenty of US releases on tap this week but perhaps the most important for the USD will be the minutes of the April 26-27 Fed FOMC meeting. Taken together with speeches by Fed officials including Bernanke, FX markets will attempt to gauge clues to Fed policy post the end of QE2. The Fed’s stance at this point will be the major determinant of whether the USD can sustain its rally over the medium term. The lack of back up in US bond yields suggests that USD momentum could slow, with markets likely to move into wide ranges over coming weeks.

It is worth considering which currencies will suffer more in the event that the USD extends its gains. The correlation between the USD index and EUR/USD is extremely strong (even accounting for the fact that the EUR is a large part of the USD index) suggesting that the USDs gains are largely a result of the EUR’s woes. Aside from the EUR, GBP, AUD and CAD are the most sensitive major currencies to USD strength whilst many emerging market currencies including ZAR, TRY, SGD, KRW, THB, IDR, BRL and MXN, are all highly susceptible to the impact of a stronger USD.

Robust Q1 GDP growth readings in both Germany and France helped to spur gains in the EUR but this proved short-lived. Sentiment for the currency has soured and as reflected in the CFTC IMM data long positions are being scaled back. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of scope for more EUR selling given ongoing worries about the eurozone periphery, which are finally taking their toll on the EUR. A break below EUR/USD 1.4021 would open the door for a test of 1.3980.

The eurogroup and ecofin meetings will be of interest to markets this week but any additional support for Greece is unlikely to be announced at this time. However, likely approval of Portugal’s bailout may alleviate some pressure on the EUR but any positive impetus will be limited. Even on the data front, markets will not be impressed with the German ZEW index of investor confidence likely to register a further decline in May.

Japanese officials have been shying away from further FX intervention by blaming the drop in USD/JPY over recent weeks on general USD weakness despite the move towards 80. However, this view is not really backed up by correlation analysis which shows that there is only a very low sensitivity of USD/JPY to general USD moves over recent months. One explanation for the strength of the JPY is strong flows of portfolio capital into Japan, with both bond and equity markets registering net inflows over the past four straight weeks.

This is not the only explanation, however. One of the main JPY drivers has been a narrowing in yield differentials. This is unlikely to persist with yield differentials set to widen sharply over coming months resulting in a sharply higher USD/JPY. As usual data releases are unlikely to have a big impact on the JPY this week but if anything, a further decline in consumer confidence, and a negative reading for Q1 GDP, will maintain the pressure for a weaker JPY and more aggressive Bank of Japan (BoJ) action although the BoJ is unlikely to shift policy this week.

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