Extreme Uncertainty

The level of uncertainty enveloping global markets has reached an extreme level. Who would have thought that close to 13 years after its introduction at a time when it has become the second largest reserve currency globally (26.7% of global reserves) as well as the second most traded currency in the world, European leaders would be openly talking about allowing countries to exit the EUR? No less an issue for currency markets is the sustainability of the USD’s role as the foremost reserve currency (60.2% of global reserves). The US debt ceiling debacle and the dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet have led to many official reserve holders to question their use of the USD. Perhaps unsurprisingly the JPY has been the main beneficiary of such concerns especially as global risk aversion has increased but to the Japanese much of this attention is unwanted and unwelcome.

The immediate focus is the travails of the eurozone periphery. Against the background of severe debt tensions and political uncertainties it is perhaps surprising that the EUR has held up reasonably well. However, this resilience is related more to concerns about the long term viability of the USD rather than a positive view of the EUR, as many official investors continue to diversify away from the USD. I question whether the EUR’s resilience can be sustained given that it may be a long while before the situation in the eurozone stabilises. Moreover, given the now not insignificant risk of one or more countries leaving the eurozone the long term viability of the EUR may also come into question. I believe a break up of the eurozone remains unlikely but such speculation will not be quelled until markets are satisfied that a safety net / firewall for the eurozone periphery is safely in place.

In this environment fundamentals count for little and risk counts for all. If anything, market tensions have intensified and worries about the eurozone have increased since last month. Politics remain at the forefront of market turmoil, and arguably this has led to the worsening in the crisis as lack of agreement between eurozone leaders has led to watered down solutions. Recent changes in leadership in Italy and Greece follow on from government changes in Portugal and Ireland while Spain is widely expected to emerge with a new government following elections. Meanwhile Chancellor Merkel has had to tread a fine line given opposition from within her own coalition in Germany while in France President Sarkozy is expected to have a tough time in elections in April next year. The likelihood of persistent political tensions for months ahead suggests that the EUR and risk currencies will suffer for a while longer.

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EU Deal Boosts Euro But Momentum To Fade

The European Union deal for Greece was clearly on the positive side of expectations and from that perspective helped to buoy sentiment for European assets. The fact that EU leaders managed to work over differences and emerge with a solid deal will help remove some of the uncertainty about Greece’s future and lower the risks of contagion.

To recap EU leaders announced a EUR 109 billion second aid package for Greece. Private bondholders will contribute a target of a further EUR 37 billion via bond swaps or rolling over existing debt for new bonds maturing in 30 years. Investors will have the option to exchange existing debt into four instruments. The aim is to obtain 90% participation from Greek bondholders.

Moreover, it appears that governments will guarantee any defaulted Greek debt offered as collateral until the country can return to the market. Effectively this means that even if ratings agencies declare a default rating on Greek debt, Greek banks may still be able to obtain funding from the European Central Bank (ECB) as the debt is guaranteed by national governments.

Greece, Portugal and Ireland will benefit from lower interest rates on loans and longer maturities. Moreover, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund will have a wider scope for bond buying directly from investors. This lets the ECB off the hook to avoid further use of its own bond purchase programme and removes any further impairing of its balance sheet. The idea of a tax on banks was removed, as criticism of the workability of such a plan increased.

The downside of the deal includes the fact that:
1) European tax payers are on the line for a potentially unlimited amount to guarantee defaulted Greek debt,
2) The bondholder programme is only limited to Greece, so there is no contingency should something similar be needed in other countries
3) The participation rate for private bondholders is yet to be known (but will most likely be high).
3) The deal will lead to a default on Greek debt given the programme amounts to a 21% drop in value but a credit event is unlikely to be triggered.
4) Greece still has a highly ambitious privatisation and austerity plan to implement which even some Greek officials have admitted is overly optimistic and at worst could turn into a fire sale of Greek assets.
5) EFSF bond purchases will need the “mutual agreement” of member states which is by no means guaranteed.
6) The fund size is not large enough should Italy and Spain need similar bailouts especially as leaders have stressed that the Greek package will not be replicated for other countries.

The EUR rallied on the outcome of the European talks. However, the EUR has plenty of other worries to deal with including divergence in growth across the eurozone, overly long EUR market positioning, EUR overvaluation, likely growth underperformance versus the US and a likely rebound in general for the USD over coming months especially if the Fed does not embark on QE3 and agrees a deal to raise the debt ceiling. EUR/USD is likely to remain supported in the near term, with near term resistance around 1.4467. I still suspect that the momentum will not last, with EUR/USD looking particularly rich at current levels.

Euro’s Teflon Coating Wearing Thin

EUR has suffered a setback in the wake some disappointment from the European Union summit at the end of last week and the major defeat of German Chancellor Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Union party in yesterday’s election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The EUR had been fairly resistant to negative news over recent weeks but its Teflon like coating may be starting to wear thin.

The setbacks noted above + others (see previous post) follow credit rating downgrades for Portugal by both S&P and Fitch ratings and growing speculation that the country is an imminent candidate for an EU bailout following the failure of the Portuguese government to pass its austerity measures last week and subsequent resignation of Portugal’s Prime Minister Socrates.

For its part Portugal has stated that it does not need a bailout but looming bond redemptions of around EUR 9 billion on April 15 and June 15 against the background of record high funding costs mean that the pressure for a rescue is intense. Complicating matters is the fact that fresh elections cannot be held earlier than 55 days after being announced, meaning that policy will effectively be in limbo until then. A June vote now appears likely.

After what was perceived to be a positive result of the informal EU leaders summit a couple of weeks ago, the outcome of the final summit last week failed to deliver much anticipated further details whilst more negatively the EU bailout fund’s paid-in capital was scaled back to EUR 16 billion (versus EUR 40 billion agreed on March 21) due to concerns expressed by Germany.

Ireland is also in focus ahead of European bank stress tests results on March 31. Ireland is pushing for increased sharing of bank losses with senior bondholders as part of a “final solution” for financial sector. Meanwhile the new government remains unwilling to increase the country’s relatively low corporation tax in exchange for a renegotiation of terms for the country’s bailout. This point of friction also threatens to undermine the EUR.

The bottom line is that the bad news is building up and the ability of the EUR to shake it off is lessening. Considering the fact that the market long EUR, with positioning well above the three-month average the EUR is vulnerable to position adjustment. After slipping over recent days EUR/USD looks supported above 1.3980 but its upside is looking increasingly restricted against the background of various pieces of bad news.

Eurozone peripheral tensions

The USD index remains under pressure but will likely continue to consolidate. The USD continues to be undermined by adverse interest rate differentials and is gaining little support from rising risk aversion. One factor that will help dictate USD direction over coming months is the prospects for further quantitative easing once QE2 ends.

Fed officials offered varied views on the subject. Dallas Fed President Fisher hinted he would support cutting short asset purchases before the end of June, whilst Atlanta Fed President Lockhart noted he was “very cautious” about further asset purchases. Meanwhile Chicago Fed President Evans noted that he believes the hurdle for altering the asset purchase plan is “pretty high”.

Although there is a lack of first tier data releases in the eurozone this week there is certainly plenty for markets to chew on in terms of peripheral country issues, which may just prevent the EUR from extending its gains. Eurozone peripheral debt spreads have undergone a renewed widening over recent weeks as debt fears have increased and worries that Portugal may follow Ireland and Greece in needing a bailout have risen.

Meanwhile news that Ireland’s incoming government will introduce legislation allowing the restructuring of some senior bank bonds, will add to tensions. Meanwhile, the downgrading of Greece’s government bond ratings to B1 from Ba1 dealt another blow sentiment following hot on the heels of Fitch’s downgrade of Spain’s outlook to negative although the EUR proved resilient to the news. EUR/USD continues to look as though it will consolidate around the 1.4000 level, but worsening sentiment towards the periphery may open up downside as the EUR’s resilience fades.

Upward revisions to eurozone growth and inflation forecasts and of course a hawkish shift in eurozone interest rate expectations may have justified the EUR move higher over recent weeks. However, there does not seem to be much that will provide the stimulus for further gains from current levels.

The market has already priced in an interest hike as early as next month’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and further tightening thereafter. The risk now appears asymmetric skewed to the downside especially if tensions between the eurozone core and peripheral countries deepen. How long the EUR can ignore such tensions?

It’s not only the eurozone periphery that should worry about ratings. Japan’s ratings agency R&I has warned that it may be forced to cut Japan’s sovereign ratings before April’s local elections due to current political problems. R&I’s concern revolve around the potential for political problems to delay fiscal reforms. As usual the JPY remains unmoved by political issues and is moving to the stronger side of its recent range against the background of elevated risk aversion.

Although the JPY has not been particularly sensitive to risk over recent months shorter-term correlations shows that its sensitivity has increased. Given that Middle-East tensions do not appear to be easing the JPY will remain well supported. Indeed, speculative positioning data reveals the highest JPY net long position since November 2010. As risk appetite improves JPY positioning will be pared back but this is unlikely to be imminent, with USD/JPY set to remain close to support around 81.10.

The Week Ahead

Housing and durable goods orders data will form the highlights of the US calendar this week. Speeches from several Fed speakers will also give some further guidance to the appetite for completing the Fed’s $600 billion in asset purchases. Overall it will be a slow start for FX markets with liquidity thinned by the Presidents Day holiday and as a result currencies are likely to remain in relatively tight ranges. The heavy tone of the USD seen last week is likely to persist over coming days given the absence of driving factors. Even the unrest in the Middle East has been unable to derail the improving trend in risk appetite, another factor dampening USD sentiment.

The EUR held up well last week recouping its early week losses to end on a firm note. The ability of the EUR to shake off various bits of bad news was impressive but whether it can continue to do so is debatable. Data releases are unlikely to provide much of a boost. Whilst eurozone business surveys set to remain at high levels, consistent with a rebound in Q1 GDP growth, further improvements are unlikely. The week kicks off with the February German IFO business confidence survey but at best this will reveal stable reading. The EUR may find some support from signs of higher and in Germany and an above consensus reading for M3 money supply growth though this is not usually a market mover. The data will likely feed nervousness about European Central Bank (ECB) tightening. Ireland could rock the boat however, with general elections likely to keep markets nervous about potential renegotiations of Ireland’s bailout terms.

Although deflationary pressures are easing in Japan there is a long way before the spectre of inflation will emerge. Nonetheless, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) revised up its growth outlook last week, suggesting that the likelihood of more aggressive measures to combat deflation is narrowing. A reminder of ongoing deflation will come with the release of January CPI data this week whilst trade data will be watched to determine what impact the strength of the JPY is having on exports. Both EUR/JPY and USD/JPY are close to the top of their recent ranges and the data are unlikely to provoke a break higher. USD/JPY will likely remain capped around 84.51 whilst EUR/JPY will find tough resistance around 114.02.

GBP performed even better than the EUR last week helped by an even more hawkish sounding than usual BoE Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) member Sentance and a letter from the BoE governor hinting at rate hikes. Even a relatively more slightly dovish Quarterly Inflation Report failed to halt GBP’s ascent. Further direction will come from the February MPC minutes in which we expect to see two dissenters, namely Sentence and Weale who likely voted for a rate hike. However, there is a risk that they may have been joined by at least one other, with speculation that MPC member Bean may have joined the dissenters. Such speculation alongside the jump in January UK retail sales at the end of last week will likely add to more upside potential for GBP, setting it up for another gain this week. Its upward momentum may however, be hampered by the large net long GBP positioning overhang.

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