S&P Spoils The Party

Although stock markets registered gains the rally in risk assets stumbled, with sentiment knocked by news that S&P ratings has placed 15 Eurozone countries on negative watch for a possible downgrade due to “systemic stresses”. Among the 15 were Germany and France. Weaker economic news in the form of service sector purchasing managers indices in China and the US also dented market sentiment.

The Eurozone countries including all six triple A rated governments have a one in two chance of a downgrade within 90 days. Although there has been speculation of a French downgrade the major surprise was the inclusion of Germany in the list. A downgrade of Eurozone countries would hit the ability of the EFSF bailout fund to finance rescue packages for countries give that it is supported by sovereign guarantees from the six AAA rated countries.

Ironically the S&P announcement followed news that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy have agreed on treaty changes revealing some progress ahead of the Eurozone summit on 8/9th December. Among the details of the agreement private sector bond holders will not be asked to bear any losses on any future debt restructuring, automatic sanctions for countries that breach the 3% deficit / GDP rule, a “golden rule” on balanced budgets, and an earlier data for the launch of the European Stability Mechanism to 2012.

The “fiscal compact” will be welcomed by the European Central Bank (ECB), with hints by President Draghi that it could be followed by stronger action from the central bank. Although S&P spoiled the party somewhat overnight, markets will go into the EU Summit with high expectations, suggesting that risk assets will find some degree of support. EUR slipped on the S&P news but further losses will be limited ahead of the EU Summit, with markets looking for further concrete actions from Eurozone leaders. EUR/USD will be supported around 1.3260 in the short term.

Germany Caught in the Contagion

Equity markets came off their lows overnight despite a 236 point drop in the Dow Jones, but sentiment remains extremely fragile and any let up in pressure on risk assets will prove temporary. A weak bond auction in Germany highlights the severity of contagion across Europe. If the core is being hit then there is no safe haven in Europe anymore. On a positive note it might just make German officials finally realise that they need to act quickly to provide solutions to the crisis.

Weak data notably outside the US adds to the malaise, with in particular China’s HSBC November weaker purchasing managers’ indices coming in below the 50 boom/bust level. Europe’s weaker purchasing managers indices highlight the prospects of looming recession while the news in Germany is not only bad on the bond front bad also on the data front. Today’s German November IFO survey will continue in the same vein, with further weakness in this business survey expected.

Bearing in mind the US Thanksgiving holiday today thin liquidity will mean that conditions are ripe for exaggerated market moves. EUR/USD has already sustained a drop below the important 1.3500 level as even the underling strong Asian demand appears to have been pulled back. More downside is expected but technicals suggests that it will be hard trudge lower, with near term support seen around 1.3285 (10 day Bollinger Band). The near term range is likely to be 1.3285-1.3505 although given the US holiday the range may be even tighter.

Aside from the IFO attention today will focus on a meeting between Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Monti. As usual expect a lot of hot air but little action. Also note there is a general strike in Portugal today protesting against austerity measures in the country.

The Italian Job

Italy looks too big to rescue yet is too big to fail. The country has around EUR 1.9 trillion in public debt (around 5 times that of Greece) and is the third largest country in the eurozone. Therefore it cannot be as easily dealt with as Greece.

Italy needs to raise around EUR 18 billion per month to cover its budget deficit and bond redemptions and with a continued increase in yields (hitting close to 7.5% for 10 year bonds) borrowing costs are rising sharply and fast becoming unsustainable. Higher collateral haircuts on Italian debt are adding to the pressure.

Although Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has said he will step down in the wake of reform measures to be voted on by the Italian parliament the vote on the measures may not take place for weeks. Moreover, Berlusconi may attempt to seek re-election after stepping down, which could bring the situation back to square one.

In the meantime speculation that Italy may be the next country to need to a bailout will intensify. However, with only around EUR 270 billion remaining in the EFSF bailout fund and details of how the fund will be leveraged to a planned EUR 1 trillion still lacking, doubts about whether it will have sufficient resources will grow. Press reports that Germany and France have begun talks to break up the eurozone due to fears that Italy will be too big to rescue will only add to the malaise.

Focus over the short term will turn to today’s 12 month auction of EUR 5 billion in Italy. Last month’s 12 month auction saw an average yield of 3.57% but this time around yields could rise above 6%. Worryingly it appears that even with the European Central Bank (ECB) buying Italian debt it has been insufficient to prevent yield rising.

In any case, given the ECB’s reluctance to become lender of the last resort to European peripherals, any support from this direction will be limited. Against this background the EUR remains highly vulnerable to a further drop. Indeed, the EUR’s recent resilience looks all the more misplaced. A test of the 4 October low around EUR/USD 1.3146 is on the cards over coming days.

Euro looking rich at current levels

Markets continue to be rumour driven with little concrete news to provide direction. The news that a comprehensive deal by European officials at this Sunday’s EU Summit is now very unlikely has come as a further blow to hopes of a swift resolution to the crisis.

So it seems that Sunday’s meeting will provide a forum to thrash out ideas before a second summit next Wednesday. As a reminder the issues at hand are leveraging the EFSF, banking sector recapitalisation and the extent of private sector participation in Greek debt write downs.

The main disagreement appears to be between Germany and France on method of additional funding the EFSF bailout fund (which has EUR 280billion of firepower left), with Germany and the European Central Bank (ECB) opposed to French demands to utilise the ECB to help back the EFSF with France wanting the facility being turned in a bank. In terms of write downs for Greek bond holders there is a push for at least a 50% reduction compared to the 21% agreed in July.

Separately speculation of the amount of new capital needed for banking sector recapitalisation now revolves around a figure of EUR 80 billion. One spanner in the works is that Chancellor Merkel will have to gain approval from the German parliament before agreeing on further changes to the EFSF, which may delay the process further.

Clearly as this week has gone on the air has continued to seep out of the balloon as the market braces for disappointment. Surprisingly the EUR has held up well and while it has failed to extend gains, hitting a high earlier in the week around 1.3915 but still pricing in some scope for success, at current levels.

Helping the EUR was the fact that the market was very short, and while it could still move higher next week if European officials agree on a plan it still looks like a sell on rallies, with the scope for further gains limited from current rich levels. Good news from Europe next week could see a test of EUR/USD 1.40 but this will prove to be a good selling area further out.

At least there was some good news from Greece for a change as the Prime Minister won a vote to pass further austerity measures to help secure the next tranche (delayed from September) of the bailout despite ongoing protests in the country. The near term focus will be on a meeting of Finance Ministers today ahead of Sunday’s summit.

High Hopes

EUR/USD has rallied over recent days from a low around 1.3146 last week. Market hopes of a eurozone solution may fall flat but the pressure on officials has ratcheted higher, and the risks of failure are now too significant to jeopardize with half measures. Weekend promises of banking sector recapitalisation by Germany and France have helped but will not be enough should such promises prove empty. Markets will likely give the benefit of the doubt to eurozone officials ahead of the delayed October 23 EU Summit and the November 3 G20 meeting.

Consequently EUR will find some support over coming days and could extend gains as risk appetite improves; having broken above 1.3600 the next big resistance level for EUR/USD is 1.3800. The fact that EUR speculative positioning is very negative (biggest short position since June 2010 according to IMM data) highlights the potential for short covering.

Possible good news in Greece, with an announcement by the Troika (ECB, EU and IMF) on talks over the next tranche of the bailout will likely provide more EUR support. One stumbling block for the EUR could come from the Slovakian vote on EFSF bailout fund enhancement, which is by no means guaranteed to pass.

The JPY remains firm benefitting from higher risk aversion, registering one of the highest correlations with risk over recent months. However, the reason why the JPY is not even stronger is that bond yield differentials (especially 2-year) with the US have widened out in favour of the USD over recent days. If the recent improvement in risk appetite continues, combined with widening yield differentials it could push USD/JPY to finally move higher and sustain a break above 77.00.

GBP/USD has made an impressive bounce over recent days from a low around 1.5272 last week despite the Bank of England’s announcement of more quantitative easing last week and credit ratings downgrades of several UK banks. This resilience is impressive but it appears that GBP is caching onto the coat tails of a firmer EUR rather than benefitting from a domestically led improvement in sentiment. Nonetheless, there is scope for further gains in GBP given that speculative positioning in the currency moved close to its all time low early last week in anticipation of BoE QE.

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