Dollar firmer, Euro vulnerable, Yen wary

multitude of market moving events last week led to severe gyrations in risk appetite but with no clear direction for currencies. Indeed, currency markets were whipsawed as the news flow shifted back and forth. Major events such as the European Central Bank (ECB) and US Federal Reserve meetings, and US jobs data provided plenty of volatility points for markets. This week’s US data slate is less littered with first tier data, with trade data and Michigan confidence, the highlights of the week. Against this background the USD will take direction from events in the eurozone and in our view will likely trade with a firmer bias given that eurozone tensions will not ease quickly.

The EUR was relatively resilient despite a referendum (later cancelled) that could have spelled the beginning of the end of Greece’s membership in the eurozone. Nonetheless, the currency still dropped over the week. This week will be no different as markets sift through various pieces of news regarding Greece and the EU rescue plan. Although the Greek Prime Minister survived a confidence vote the EUR will remain vulnerable to a lack of detail about the EU rescue plan including but not limited to how the mechanism for leveraging the EFSF bailout fund. The longer the delay in providing such details the bigger the risk to the EUR. Data releases will be unhelpful for the EUR, with hard data such as German industrial production confirming a slowdown in activity.

Japan’s FX intervention at the beginning of last week has all but been forgotten among the plethora of other market moving news. Expectations that it would be followed up by more intervention proved incorrect as the Japanese authorities refrained from more action. Perhaps the onset of the G20 meeting stayed their hand but markets will be wary of more intervention this week. However, as the strengthening current account data in Japan will likely reveal this week, Japan’s strong external position continues to feed the underlying upward pressure on the JPY for the time being.

Interestingly FX markets appear to be reacting to growth orientated central bank policy rather than yield as reflected in the fact that EUR and GBP both strengthened despite additional quantitative easing from Bank of England at its last meeting and a rate cut from the ECB last week. This week however, inaction from the BoE will provide little direction to GBP while a likely drop in industrial production will raise fears that the economy continues to be in need of more remedial action from the central bank. GBP continues to be favoured but after having made up a lot of ground versus EUR it could lose some steam this week.

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Strengthening risk appetite hitting the dollar

Strengthening risk appetite is taking its toll on the USD, with the USD index now down around 3.5% from its 4 October peak. Although equity markets probably liked the news the USD was dealt another blow from the FOMC minutes which revealed that some Fed officials were keen on embarking on further large-scale asset purchases after recognizing that the impact of Operation Twist will not be so potent.

Earnings will have some impact on risk and in turn the USD, with Q3 earnings from JP Morgan and Google on tap today. However, risk appetite looks well supported and in a market that became long USDs very quickly, this suggests some scope for squaring long positions in the short term.

What comes next for the EUR? The currency has bounced from its lows and has made considerable ground against the USD over recent sessions. Markets quickly got over Slovakia’s initial rejection of the EFSF’s enhancement as agreement was reached by officials in the country to approve the mechanism in a second vote. However, there is not much news on the progress on issues such as European banking sector recapitalisation, ‘leveraging’ the EFSF or the any change in creditor participation in any Greek debt restructuring.

Although European Commission President Barroso gave some broad outlines of what should be done to recapitalise banks disagreement among officials meant that there was little detail. Perhaps no news is good news and in any case markets will have to wait for the delayed EU Summit for further news, but the longer the wait the greater the scepticism and attendant downside risks to EUR.

The Swiss National Bank must be content with their stance on the CHF. Since the imposition of a ceiling for CHF versus EUR at 1.2000, and after an initial sharp jump higher the currency pair has continued to edge upwards. Meanwhile, speculation that the SNB may even raise the ceiling to 1.30 has grown as domestic complaints such as those from the country’s largest telecoms operator yesterday about the ongoing strength in the currency, continue.

The SNB has not indicated that it favors such a move and may be content with a gradual decline in the CHF as is taking place now, but should the fragile market calm at present disintegrate the SNB may have another battle on their hands as appetite for the currency strengthens anew. On the top side resistance is seen around 1.2469 for EUR/CHF.

Like many other high beta currencies AUD is being influenced less by domestic factors and more by risk aversion. Even more influential to the direction of AUD/USD is the movement in commodity prices and like risk aversion this had a negative influence on AUD as commodity prices dropped sharply over September.

Due to a bounce in both risk and commodities AUD has bounced sharply from its recent lows back above parity with the USD. AUD will have found further support from the firm September jobs report today. It is difficult to go against rising risk appetite at present but there is still a significant risk that hopes of a solution to the eurozone’s woes do not materialise while growth expectations are pared back further. Against this background the AUD will remain susceptible to sharp

Euro vulnerable to event risk

The USD is benefitting in the current environment of elevated risk aversion reflected in a jump in USD speculative positioning over recent weeks, with current IMM positioning currently at its highest since June 2010.

Admittedly there is still plenty of scope for risk aversion to intensify but what does this mean for the USD? The USD index is currently trading just over 78 but during the height of the financial crisis it rose to around 89, a further gain from current levels of around of around 14%.

The main obstacle to further USD strength in the event of the current crisis intensifying is if the Fed implements QE3 but as the Fed has indicated this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as “Operation Twist” gets underway.

Now that the Fed FOMC meeting is out of the way markets will also be less wary of buying USDs as the prospect of more QE has diminished for now. Data this week will likely be USD supportive too, with increases in consumer confidence, durable goods orders, an upward revision to Q2 GDP expected.

The EUR remains highly vulnerable to event risk this week. Various votes in eurozone countries to approve changes to the EFSF bailout fund will garner most attention in FX markets, with the German vote of particular interest although this should pass at the cost of opposition from within Chancellor Merkel’s own party.

The EUR may garner some support if there is some traction on reports of a three pronged approach to help solve the crisis which includes ‘leveraging’ the EFSF fund, large scale European bank recapitalisation and a managed default in Greece, but there has been no confirmation of such measures.

Meanwhile, the potential for negotiations between the Troika (EC, IMF, ECB) and the Greek government to deliver an agreement on the next loan tranche for the country has increased, which could also offer the EUR a boost this week, albeit a short lived one.

Speculation of a potential European Central Bank (ECB) rate cut has increased a factor that could undermine the EUR depending on whether markets see it as growth positive and thus EUR positive or as a factor that reduced the EUR’s yield attraction. There is also more speculation that the ECB will offer more liquidity in the form of a 1-year operation but once again there has been no confirmation.

A likely sharp drop in the German IFO survey today and weakness in business and economic confidence surveys on Thursday will support the case for a rate cut, while helping to maintain the downward pressure on the EUR.

Given the potential for rumours and events to result in sharp shifts in sentiment look for EUR/USD to remain volatile, with support seen around 1.3384 and resistance around 1.3605.

Italy downgrade adds to EUR woes

The USD index remains firm but it remains unlikely that the USD is being bought on its own merits but rather on disappointments in the eurozone. Nonetheless, speculative USD sentiment has turned positive for the first time since June 2010 according to the CFTC IMM data, reflecting a major shift in appetite for the currency. Clearly there are risks to the USD including the potential for more QE3 being announced at this week’s FOMC meeting but this risk is likely to be small.

In contrast, the reversal in speculative sentiment for the EUR has been just as dramatic but in the opposite direction as the net short EUR position has increased over recent weeks, with positioning now at its lowest since June 2010. Sentiment is likely to have soured further overnight following news that Italy’s credit rating was cut by S&P to A from A+ despite the recent passage of an austerity package.

This outweighed any boost to sentiment from what was noted by the Greek Finance Minister as “productive” talks yesterday. Another conference call today is scheduled but the longer markets wait for approval of the next loan tranche the bigger the risk to the EUR. In addition Greek and Spanish T-bill auctions and European Central Bank (ECB) cash operations will be in focus. The EUR remains vulnerable to a test of support around 1.3500.

GBP has continued to slide over recent weeks, having fallen by around 5% since its high just above 1.66 a month ago. However, it has managed to hold its own against the EUR which looks in even more of a sorry state than the pound. The fact that GBP has been unable to capitalise on the EUR’s woes is largely attributable to growing expectations of further UK quantitative easing.

The minutes of the last Bank of England meeting on September 8 to be released on Wednesday will give more clues as to the support within the Monetary Policy Committee for further QE but its likely that the MPC will want to see the next Quarterly Inflation Report in November before committing itself to any further easing. In the meantime, GBP will find it difficult to sustain any recovery, with its drop against the USD likely to extend to around 1.5583 in the short term.

Japan returns from its Respect for the Aged holiday today but local market participants will have missed little action on the JPY, with the currency remaining confined to a very tight range. The inability of USD/JPY to move higher despite the general bounce in the USD index reflects 1) the fact that USD/JPY is very highly correlated with 2 year bond yield differentials and 2) the fact that US yields continue to be compressed relative to Japan. Additionally, risk aversion continues to favour the JPY and combined, these factors suggest little prospect of any drop in the JPY versus USD soon.

RBA on hold, RBI hikes rates

News of the death of Osama Bin Laden gave the USD a lift and its gains have extended for a second day. Extreme short market positioning as well as increasing risk aversion (perhaps due to worries about retaliation following Bin Laden’s death) have helped the USD.

However, the boost to the USD could be short-lived in the current environment in which it remains the preferred global funding currency. Indeed, the fact that US bond yields have dropped sharply over recent weeks continues to undermine the USD against various currencies.

The USD firmed despite the US ISM manufacturing index dropping slightly, albeit from a high level. The survey provided some useful clues to Friday’s US jobs report, with the slight decline in the employment component of the ISM survey to 62.7 consistent with a 200k forecast for April payrolls.

Ahead of the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting on Thursday hawkish rhetoric from new Council member and Bundesbank chief Weidmann (replacing Weber) and more reassurances from Greek and EU officials that there will be no debt restructuring or haircut on the country’s debt has helped the EUR although it is notable that it could not sustain a foot hold above 1.49. Eurozone bond yields have risen by around 20bps compared to US yields over the past month, a fact that suggests that the EUR may not fall far in the short-term.

USD/JPY is trading dangerously close to levels that may provoke FX intervention by the Japanese authorities. General USD weakness fuelled a drop in USD/JPY which has been exacerbated by a rise in risk aversion over recent days (higher risk aversion usually plays in favour of a stronger JPY). The biggest determinant of the drop in USD/JPY appears to a narrowing in bond yields (2-year bond yields have narrowed by around 20bps over the past month) largely due to a rally in US bonds.

Unsurprisingly the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left its cash rate on hold at 4.75%. The accompanying statement showed little inclination to hike rates anytime soon, with credit growth noted as modest, pressure from a stronger exchange rate on the traded sector and temporary prices shocks which are expected to dissipate. The only indication that rates will eventually increase is the view that longer term inflation is expected to move higher.

I look for further rate hikes over coming months even with the AUD at such a high level. AUD has lost a bit of ground after hitting a high just above 1.10 against the USD and on the margin the statement is slightly negative for AUD. A slightly firmer USD overall and stretched speculative positioning, with IMM AUD positions close to their all time high, points to some downside risks in the short-term.

In contrast India’s central bank the RBI hiked interest rates by more than many expected. Both the repo and reverse repo rates were raised by 50bps, with the central bank governor highlighting renewed inflation risks in his statement. The decision reveals a shift in RBI rhetoric to an even more hawkish bias in the wake of rising inflation pressures, which should be beneficial to the rupee.

Irish bailout leaves EUR unimpressed

As has been the case since the beginning of the global financial crisis policy makers have found themselves under pressure to deliver a solution to a potentially destabilising or even systemic risk before the markets open for a new week in order to prevent wider contagion. Last night was no different and following urgent discussions a EUR 85 billion bailout for Ireland to be drawn down over a period of 7 ½ years was agreed whilst moves towards a permanent crisis mechanism were brought forward. As was evident over a week ago a bailout was inevitable but the terms were the main imponderable.

Importantly the financing rate for the package is lower than feared (speculation centered on a rate of 6.7%) but still relatively high at 5.8%. Moreover, no haircuts are required for holders of senior debt of Irish banks and Germany’s call for bondholders to bear the brunt of losses in future crises was watered down. The package will be composed of EUR 45 bn from European governments, EUR 22.5 bn from the IMF and EUR 17.5 bn from Ireland’s cash reserve and national pension fund.

The impact on the EUR was stark, with the currency swinging in a 120 point range and failing to hold its initial rally following the announcement. A break below the 200-day moving average for EUR/USD around 1.3131 will trigger a drop to around 1.3020 technical support. Officials will hope that the bailout offers the currency some deeper support but this already seems to be wishful thinking. The EUR reaction following the Greek bailout in early May does not offer an encouraging comparison; after an initial rally the EUR lost close to 10% of its value over the following few weeks.

Although it should be noted that the bailout appears more generous than initially expected clearly the lack of follow through in terms of EUR upside will come as a blow. The aid package has bought Ireland some breathing space but this could be short lived if Ireland’s budget on December 7 is not passed. Moreover, the bailout will not quell expectations that Portugal and perhaps even Spain will require assistance. Indeed, Portugal is the next focus and the reaction to an auction of 12-month bills on 1 December will be of particular interest.

Taken together with continued tensions on the Korean peninsular, position closing towards year end ongoing Eurozone concerns will likely see a further withdrawal from risk trades over coming weeks. For Asian currencies this spells more weakness and similarly commodity currencies such as AUD and NZD also are likely to face more pressure. The USD remains a net beneficiary even as the Fed continues to print more USDs in the form of QE2.

Data and events this week have the potential to change the markets perspective, especially the US November jobs report at the end of the week. There is no doubt that payrolls are on an improving trend (145k consensus) in line with the declining trend in jobless claims but unfortunately the unemployment rate is set to remain stubbornly high at 9.6% and this will be the bigger focus for the Fed and markets as it implies not let up in QE. As usual further clues to the payrolls will be garnered from the ADP jobs report and ISM data on Wednesday.

Peripheral debt concerns intensify

European peripheral debt concerns have allowed the USD a semblance of support as the EUR/USD pullback appears to have gathered momentum following its post FOMC meeting peak of around 1.4282. The blow out in peripheral bond spreads has intensified, with Greek, Portuguese and Irish 10 year debt spreads against bonds widening by around 290bps, 136bps and 200bps, respectively from around mid October.

The EUR appears to have taken over from the USD, at least for now, as the weakest link in terms of currencies. EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a break below technical support around 1.3732. Aside from peripheral debt concerns US bonds yields have increased over recent days, with the spread between 10-year US and German bonds widening by around 17 basis points in favour of the USD since the beginning of the month.

The correlation between the bond spread and EUR/USD is significant at around 0.76 over the past 3-months, highlighting the importance of yield spreads in the recent move in the USD against some currencies. Similarly high correlations exist for AUD/USD, USD/JPY and USD/CHF.

Data today will offer little direction for markets suggesting that the risk off mood may continue. US data includes the September trade deficit. The data will be scrutinized for the balance with China, especially following the ongoing widening in the bilateral deficit over recent months, hitting a new record of $28 billion in August. Similarly an expected increase in China’s trade surplus will add to the currency tensions between the two countries. FX tensions will be highlighted at the Seoul G20 meeting beginning tomorrow, with criticism of US QE2 gathering steam.

Commodity and Asian currencies are looking somewhat precariously perched in the near term, with AUD/USD verging on a renewed decline through parity despite robust September home loan approvals data released this morning, which revealed a 1.3% gain, the third straight monthly increase.

However, the NZD looks even more vulnerable following comments by RBNZ governor Bollard that the strength of the Kiwi may reduce the need for higher interest rates. As a result, AUD/NZD has spiked and could see a renewed break above 1.3000 today. Asian currencies are also likely to remain on the backfoot today due both to a firmer USD in general but also nervousness ahead of the G20 meeting.

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