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.

Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

Contrasting US and European data

While the week is likely to commence in a positive mood as political uncertainties in Greece and Italy ease somewhat, there are still plenty of uncertainties that could derail risk appetite. In particular, there has been little progress on agreeing on further details on leveraging the EFSF bailout fund. Moreover, many are looking to the European Central Bank (ECB) to take up the role as lender of the last resort. Indeed, the difficulty of the EFSF debt issue last week to garner demand puts the onus firmly on the ECB.

While it is likely that the ECB will have to step up its bond purchases especially given the heavy bond supply this week from Italy, France and Spain, the ECB is very reluctant to take up this mantle. As a result, peripheral and increasingly core bond market sentiment will remain fragile while the EUR will be vulnerable to a drop lower, especially given how rich it looks around current levels close to 1.38 versus USD. The week will likely be one of selling risk on rallies.

Data releases this week will show some contrasts between the US and Europe. US data will further dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing, with October retail sales and industrial production set to register gains and November manufacturing surveys likely to bounce. Several Federal Reserve speeches this week will shed more light on the FOMC’s stance and likely some support for purchases of mortgage backed securities will be reiterated.

In contrast eurozone data will show further deceleration. Industrial production in September is likely to have dropped sharply while the German ZEW investor confidence survey is set to have dropped further in November. Even an expected bounce in eurozone Q3 GDP will do little to stave off recession concerns given that growth in the final quarter of the year will have been much weaker. Banking sector develeraging will only add to growth concerns as credit expansion in curtailed.

In FX markets, the risk currencies will be vulnerable to selling pressure. EUR/USD has rebounded having tested highs around 1.3815 this morning but its gains look increasingly fragile. USD/JPY continues to grind lower, with no sign of further intervention from the Japanese authorities. Elevated risk aversion and the narrow US yield advantage continues to support the JPY making the job of weakening the currency harder. GBP has done well although it has lagged the EUR against the USD over recent days. A likely dovish stance in the Bank of England (BoE) quarterly inflation report will see GBP struggle to extend gains above 1.60 against the USD.

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.

Sell Risk Currencies on Rallies

The Federal Reserve FOMC outcome and Greece’s travails failed to dampen the recovery in risk appetite overnight. The Fed highlighted downside risks to growth and revised lower its forecasts. However, positively for risk appetite the Fed left open further policy easing options, hinting at more quantitative easing if needed.

Meanwhile European leaders tightened the noose around Greece by cutting off EUR 8 billion in aid payments and threatening to cut of all aid if the country’s referendum now scheduled for December 4 fails to endorse the EU rescue package announced last week.

At the emergency meeting of European leaders yesterday Greece’s Prime Minister also admitted that the referendum will not only decide the fate of the rescue package but also whether Greece wants to remain in the eurozone. Greece was not only the eurozone country in focus as Italy continues to be racked by political uncertainties, with Prime Minister Berlusconi failing push through legislation on structural reforms ahead of the G20 meeting beginning today.

The risk rally is highly unlikely to last, with the EUR, commodity and high beta emerging market currencies to face further pressure. Although the immediate market focus will be on the G20 meeting beginning today the fact that leaders are now seriously beginning to consider the prospects of a Greek exit from the eurozone while taking a tougher stance on the country highlights how important the December 4 referendum will be.

Ahead of the vote markets will remain highly nervous and risk aversion will remain elevated. Consequently risk assets are set to face further pressure. Moreover, the fact that China has downplayed the prospects of further bond purchases from the EFSF bailout fund suggests there will be no help from this quarter any time soon.

Aside from the G20 meeting markets will pay attention to Draghi and Co. at the European Central Bank (ECB) today as well as bond auctions in France and Spain but we do not look for much excitement from the ECB despite the increased uncertainty within the eurozone. While an interest rate cut today cannot be ruled out given the increased market uncertainty the ECB is likely to wait until December before cutting policy rates.

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