The Devil is in the details

The “partial solution” delivered by European Union (EU) leaders last week has failed to match the high hopes ahead of the EU Summit. Nonetheless, the deliverance of a “fiscal compact”, acceleration of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to July 2012 , no forced private sector participation in debt restructuring (outside Greece), and possible boost to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of up to EUR 200 billion, are steps in the right direction. The fact that UK Prime Minister Cameron threw a spanner in the works to veto a joint proposal to revise the EU Treaty should not detract from the progress made.

Nonetheless, the measures may not be sufficient to allay market concerns, with disappointment at the lack of European Central Bank (ECB) action in terms of stepping up to the plate as lender of the last resort still weighing on sentiment. Data will add to the disappointment this week as “flash” Eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMI) drop further in December.

This week events in the US will garner more attention, including the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting, November inflation and retail sales data plus manufacturing confidence gauges as well as November industrial production on tap. The Fed will not shift its policy stance at this meeting but may sound a little more upbeat on the economy following recent firmer data. Inflation will likely remain subdued while the other data will continue to show gradual recovery.

Overall, the market is likely to thin further as the week progresses and holidays approach, with ranges likely to dominate against the background of little directional impetus. Our call to sell risk assets on rallies remains in place, however. The EUR will likely struggle to make much headway in the current environment, especially given that many details of the EU agreement still need to be ironed out and once again the risk to market confidence lies in implementation or lack of it. A range of EUR/USD 1.3260-1.3550 is likely to hold over the short term.

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Risk Aversion Creeps Higher

The USD index has dropped by around 17% since June 2010 high and despite a slight bounce this week it is unlikely to mark the beginning of a sustained turnaround. Nonetheless, I would caution about getting carried away with positioning for USD weakness. Whilst an imminent recovery looks unlikely the risk/reward of shorting the USD is becoming increasingly unfavourable.

Until then Federal Reserve comments will be watched closely for clues on policy and there are plenty of Fed speakers this week including a speech by Boston Fed’s Rosengren today and Fed Chairman Bernanke tomorrow. The USD will also gain some direction from jobs data and markets will be able to gauge more clues for Friday’s non-farm payrolls data , with the release of the April ADP employment report today.

The EUR is one currency that has suffered this week. News that Portugal’s caretaker government has reached an agreement with the European Union / International Monetary Fund on a bailout of as much as EUR 78 billion has so far been greeted with a muted response. EUR attention is still very much focussed on the ECB meeting tomorrow and prospects of a hawkish press statement suggest that EUR/USD downside will be limited, with support seen around 1.4755.

The JPY has strengthened by around 5% versus USD since its 6th April USD/JPY high around 85.53, confounding expectations that Japan’s FX intervention following the county’s devastating earthquake marked a major turning point in the currency. A combination of narrowing interest rate differentials with the US (2 year US/Japan yield differentials have narrowed by around 20bps in the past month), strong capital inflows to Japan (net bond and equity flows in the last four weeks have increased to their highest this year), and rising risk aversion have all played their part in driving the JPY higher.

As a result USD/JPY is fast approaching the psychologically important level of 80, a level that if breached will likely lead to FX intervention. Although Golden Week holidays in Japan this week suggest that JPY liquidity may be quite thin, Japanese authorities are likely to remain resistant to further gains in the JPY, likely using thinning liquidity to their advantage.

Despite the JPY’s recent strength speculative positioning over the past four weeks has remained net short JPY, whilst Japanese margin traders have also increased their long USD/JPY bets, suggesting that these classes of investors are not to blame for the JPY’s appreciation. This suggests that FX intervention may not be as successful given that the market is already short JPY.

Given the risk of intervention on USD/JPY, the CHF appears to be an easier choice for safe haven demand against the background of rising risk aversion. The currency has risen to a record high against the USD, gaining around 8.3% so far this year. Given the hints of higher interest rates by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) and resilience economic performance, downside risks for CHF are limited at present unless risk appetite improves sharply. Further gains are likely with USD/CHF likely to test the 0.8570 support level over the short-term.

Follow The Oracle

Many investors are probably wishing they had the psychic abilities of Paul the octopus. The mollusc once again gave the correct prediction, by picking Spain to beat the Netherlands to become the winner of the World Cup. This ability would have been particularly useful for currency forecasters, many of which have been wrong footed by the move higher in EUR/USD over recent weeks.

Confidence appeared to return to markets over the past week helped by a string of rate hikes in Asia from India, South Korea and Malaysia, and firm data including yet another consensus beating jobs report in Australia. An upward revision to global growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also helped, with the net result being an easing in double-dip growth concerns.

The good news culminated in a much stronger than forecast June trade surplus in China. However, China’s trade numbers will likely keep the pressure on for further CNY appreciation, and notably US Senators are still pushing ahead with legislation on China’s FX policy despite the US Treasury decision not to name China as a currency manipulator.

Political uncertainty on the rise again in Japan following the loss of control of the upper house of parliament by the ruling DPJ party. The JPY has taken a softer tone following the election and will likely remain under pressure. CFTC IMM speculative JPY positioning has increased but this has been met with significant selling interest by Japanese margin accounts who hold their biggest net long USD/JPY position since October 2009 according to Tokyo Financial Exchange (TFX) data.

In the absence of the prodigious abilities of an “oracle octopus” data and events this week will continue to show slowing momentum in G3 country growth indicators but not enough to warrant renewed double-dip concerns. Direction will be largely driven by US Q2 earnings. S&P 500 company earnings are expected to have increased 27% from a year ago according to Thomson Reuters.

There are several data releases of interest in the US this week but the main release is the retail sales report for June which is likely to record another drop over the month. Data and events in Europe include the Eurogroup finance ministers meeting, with markets looking for further insight into bank stress tests across the region. Early indications are positive but the scope of the tests remains the main concern. The July German ZEW survey will garner some interest and is likely to show a further slight decline in economic sentiment.

EUR/USD gains looked increasingly stretched towards the end of last week, as it slipped back from a high of around 1.2722. Technical resistance around 1.2740 will prove to be tough level to crack over coming days, with a pullback to support around 1.2479 more likely. CFTC IMM data reveals that short covering in EUR has been particularly sharp in the last week, with net short positions cut by over half, highlighting that the scope for further short covering is becoming more limited.

Conversely aggregate net USD long positions have fallen by over half in the last week as USD sentiment has soured, with longs at close to a three-month low. The scope for a further reduction in USD positioning is less significant, suggesting that selling pressure may abate.

Will the ECB intervene to support the Euro? (Part 1)

The EUR has lost around 23% since it all time high in April 2008 when it traded close to 1.6000. The EUR failed to rally even in the wake of the EUR 750 billion European Union / International Monetary Fund support package, a fact that has highlighted the weight of negative sentiment towards the currency. The latest blow to the currency came from the announcement of unilateral measures from Germany to ban naked short selling on sovereign debt and some financial stocks, actions that only highlighted the lack of policy co-ordination within the eurozone.

The rationale for further EUR/USD weakness is clear and justified partly by growth divergence within the eurozone countries, with Germany on the one extreme and weaker Southern European countries on the other. Moreover, relatively weaker overall growth in the eurozone compared to the US economy, a delay in interest rate hikes by the European Central Bank (ECB) and ongoing concerns about implementation and execution of deficit cutting plans, will also weigh on the EUR.

The EU/IMF support package and in particular ECB interventions in the Eurozone bond market have managed to alleviate some of the strain on European bond markets, but without similar intervention in the FX markets the EUR has become the release valve for Europe’s fiscal and debt problems. As a result the EUR’s fall has accelerated over recent weeks, only showing any sign of stability as fears of currency intervention increased.

The quickening pace of EUR depreciation has led to growing speculation of FX intervention by the ECB and other central banks to support the currency. I believe intervention is highly unlikely and see little reason for panic about the drop in the EUR. Once markets realise that there is indeed little risk of intervention the EUR will resume its downtrend.

One of the main reasons behind this view is that the EUR is not particularly “cheap” at current levels. In fact, “fair value” estimates based on the OECD measure of purchasing power parity (PPP) suggest that EUR/USD is around 5.6% overvalued at current levels, based on an implied PPP rate of around 1.17. Therefore, the drop in the EUR over recent months has only brought it back close to PPP fair value estimates.

Moreover despite the fact that there has been a large nominal depreciation of the EUR its trade weighted exchange rate has declined by much less, around 8.5% since the beginning of the year and around 11.3% since its high in October 2009. Although the trade weighted EUR is around its lowest level since October 2008, taking a longer term view shows that it is slightly above its average over the past 20-years.

The Dust Settles

As the dust settles on the massive “shock and awe” package announced over the weekend it is become painfully apparent that markets are not at all convinced that underlying issues surrounding Europe’s woes are on the path to being resolved. Undoubtedly the EUR 750 billion provided by the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) will go a long way towards fixing the symptoms of the crisis but it will take a lot more action to convince markets that the measures to cut budget deficits, improve productivity and enact structural reforms are being carried out.

As a result of ongoing skepticism EUR/USD dropped to its lowest level since March 2009. The currency pair shows little sign of turning around and over the short-term EUR/USD is likely to test its 2010 low around 1.2510. Market positioning remains heavily short EUR suggesting some scope for short covering but any rebound in EUR/USD is being met with plenty of sellers and the upside is likely to be restricted to around 1.2885.

The size of the EU/IMF package means that financing issues for eurozone peripheral countries will not be a major concern and spreads are likely to continue to narrow against core debt. However, attention has turned to the next step in the process, in particular the path of fiscal consolidation necessary in the months ahead and the negative impact on the economies in Europe that this will entail. As US Fed Chairman Bernanke noted, the package from the EU/IMF is “not a panacea”.

Overall, the measures may have cheapened the long term value of the EUR rather than boost it as it has highlighted the many problems in having a single currency to encompass a wide variety of countries. The stark reality in having differing fiscal policies across the euro region whilst maintaining a single monetary policy has proven to be highly problematic.

At least for now, the economic data in the eurozone is providing some support, though it is questionable how long this will continue. Eurozone GDP grew by 0.2% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to the previous quarter, which was stronger than expected and growth in the second quarter actually looks like it will have picked up from this pace based on the indications from recent monthly data.

Further out, the real damage will begin and in particular economic activity in southern European countries will slow sharply even as the German economy remains resilient due to relatively strong export performance. Deficit cutting measures in Portugal, Spain and Italy will begin to bite into growth later this year and into 2011. The weakness in growth in Europe relative to the US economy, which is likely to perform relaitvely better, will provide further rationale to sell EUR/USD, though at some point markets may just shift their attention back to the burgeoning US fiscal deficit.

Shock and Awe

The Greek crisis spread further last week, not only to Portugal and Spain, but in addition to battering global equity markets, contagion spread to bank credit spreads, OIS-libor and emerging market debt. In response, European Union finance ministers have rushed to “shock and awe” the markets by formulating a “crisis mechanism” package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The package includes loan guarantees and credits worth as much as EUR 750 billion. The support package can be added to the EUR 110 billion loan package announced last week.

In addition, the US Federal Reserve (Fed) announced the authorisation of temporary currency swaps through January 2011 between the Fed, European Central Bank (ECB), Bank of Canada (BoC), Bank of England (BoE) and Swiss National Bank (SNB) in order to combat in the “the re-emergence of strains” in European markets. Separately, the ECB will conduct sterilised interventions in public and private debt markets, a measure that was hoped would be announced at the ECB meeting last week, but better late than never. The ECB did not however, announce direct measures to support the EUR.

The significance of these measures should not be underestimated and they will go a long way to reducing money market tensions and helping the EUR over the short-term. Indeed, recent history shows us that the swap mechanisms work well. The size of the package also reduced default and restructuring risks for European sovereigns. However, the risk is that it amounts to a “get out of jail free card” for European governments. A pertinent question is whether the “crisis mechanism” will keep the pressure on governments to undertake deficit cutting measures.

The Greek crisis has gone to the heart of the euro project and on its own the package will be insufficient to turn confidence around over the medium term. In order to have a lasting impact on confidence there needs to be proof of budget consolidation and increasing structural reforms. Positive signs that the former is being carried out will help but as seen by rising public opposition in Greece, it will not be without difficulties whilst structural reforms will take much longer to implement. Confidence in the eurozone project has been shattered over recent months and picking up the pieces will not be an easy process.

Some calm to markets early in the week will likely see the USD lose ground. There was a huge build up of net USD long positioning over the last week as reflected in the CFTC IMM data, suggesting plenty of scope for profit taking and/or offloading of USD long positions. In contrast, EUR positioning fell substantially to yet another record low. Some short EUR covering is likely in the wake of the new EU package, but EUR/USD 1.2996 will offer tough technical resistance followed by 1.3114.

The EU/IMF aid package will help to provide a strong backstop for EUR/USD but unless the underlying issues that led to the crisis are resolved, EUR/USD is destined to drop further. Perhaps there will be some disappointment for the EUR due to the fact that the package of support measures involves no FX intervention. This could even limit EUR upside given that there was speculation that “defending the EUR” meant physically defending the currency. In the event the move in implied FX volatility over the last week did not warrant this.

Greece Bailed Out, Euro Unimpressed

After much debate eurozone ministers along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), finally announced an emergency loan package for Greece amounting to  EUR 110 billion. In return for the bailout Greece agreed to enhanced austerity measures. The good news is that the package covers Greece’s funding requirements until 2012, and is sufficient to avoid debt restructuring and default. The loan package has also removed uncertainty ahead of bond redemption on May 19th.

One aim of the package was to prevent contagion to other eurozone countries, especially Portugal and Spain, where there has been growing pressure on local bond and equity markets. However, the path ahead is strewn with obstacles and it is too early to believe that the package has ensured medium term stability for the EUR.

The challenges ahead are two-fold, including both the implementation of the measures in Greece in the face of strong domestic opposition and the approval of the loans by individual country parliaments within the eurozone, both of which are by no means guaranteed.

The toughest approval process is likely to be seen in Germany where the government will face a grilling in parliament and a challenge in the constitutional court ahead of official approval of the package. European Union leaders are scheduled to meet on May 7th to discuss the parliamentary approval of loans to Greece whilst German officials meet on the same day.

Implementation risk is also high. Although the Greek government appears to be sufficiently committed, opposition within Greece is growing; various strikes planned over coming days. Aside from union opposition, the scale of the budgetary task ahead is enormous, having never been undertaken on such a large scale in recent history. The sharp decline in growth associated with the austerity measures will make the task even harder.

The EUR bounce on the news has been limited, with the currency failing to hold onto gains. The announcement seems to have triggered a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction, with the size of the loan package falling within the broad estimates speculated upon over the last week. The lack of EUR bounce despite the fact that going into this week the CFTC Commitment of Traders report revealed record net short speculative positioning in EUR/USD, reveals the extent of pessimism towards the currency.

The EUR may benefit from a likely narrowing in bond spreads between Greece and Germany. Given that sovereign risk is being increasingly transferred from the periphery to the core, the net impact on bond markets may not be so positive for the EUR. Over the short-term there will be strong technical resistance on the upside around EUR/USD 1.3417 but more likely the currency pair will target support at around 1.3114.

The Herculean task ahead for the Greek government suggests that markets will not rest easy until there are credible signs of progress. Investors would be forgiven for having a high degree of scepticism given the degree of “fudging” involved in the past, whilst Greek unions will undoubtedly not make the government’s task an easy one by any means. Such scepticism will prevent a sustained EUR recovery and more likely keep the EUR under pressure.

As noted above the divergence in growth for the eurozone economy between Northern and Southern Europe will make policy very difficult. Moreover, the EUR is set to suffer from an overall weak trajectory for the eurozone economy, relative to the US and other major economies. The widening growth gap with the US will also fuel a widening in bond yield differentials, a key reason for EUR/USD to continue to decline to around or below 1.25 by the end of the year.

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