Euro firmer, AUD vulnerable to risk gyrations

A surprise drop in US August consumer confidence which dropped to its lowest since November last year put a dampener on markets and notably the VIX index edged higher. Consequently treasuries rose and equities slipped despite a firmer than expected increase in US house prices in June. The confidence data adds the pressure on Fed Chairman Bernanke to give some indication of a further round of quantitative easing during his speech at Jackson Hole on Friday.

An upward revision to US Q2 GDP and a bounce in July pending home sales today are unlikely to change this perspective although the Fed’s Beige Book will likely show some moderate improvement providing the Fed with useful information.

Separately decent debt auctions in Spain and Italy helped to calm Eurozone market nerves further amid hopes of European Central Bank (ECB) action next week despite the news that Spanish region Catalonia formally asked for EUR 5 billion in funding. As a result the EUR retained a firmer tone.

Contrary to expectations, EUR/USD continued to push higher. Just why the currency is strengthening given the significant event risk in the days and weeks ahead is questionable although in part the move is attributable to an ongoing short squeeze. Hopes of constructive ECB action next week taken together with Fed quantitative easing expectations have helped to put the USD on the back foot, allowing the EUR to take advantage.

Admittedly the drop in Eurozone peripheral bond yields is certainly helpful for the EUR, while my short term quantitative ‘fair value’ estimate for EUR/USD suggests more upside too. Nonetheless, given the risk that so much could go wrong in the weeks ahead I am loathe to get on the bullish EUR bandwagon. While EUR/USD and EUR on the crosses will likely remain firm ahead of Jackson Hole I expect the EUR to struggle to hold onto gains into next week.

AUD has lost ground since around 10 August. This has roughly coincided with a rise in risk aversion over recent weeks. Indeed, AUD maintains a strong correlation with risk aversion and is therefore highly susceptible to swings in risk appetite. Additionally renewed China worries have also dampened the attraction of the AUD given the increasing dependency of Australia’s economy to China both directly through trade and indirectly via commodity prices.

While I remain positive on the AUD over the medium term, the high level of speculative positioning in the currency suggests some vulnerability to profit taking over the short term, with AUD/USD vulnerable to a drop to technical support around 1.0282. Much will depend on news out of China in terms of AUD direction, with Chinese stock market gyrations also providing some influence.

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Market fear rising

In what was fairly subdued trading conditions in the wake of a UK holiday the most interesting market move was the jump in the VIX ‘fear gauge’ which has been on a steady increase since 17 August. The rise in equity volatility suggests that the relative calm experienced over the summer may be ending.

Major events over coming days and weeks including the Jackson Hole Fed symposium on Friday, IMF/EU review of Portugal today, ECB meeting on September 6, Dutch general election on 12 September, German constitutional court decision on the ESM permanent bailout fund on the same day, as well as the Fed FOMC meeting on September 12-13, highlight the potential for more volatility and uncertainty.

Yesterday’s fourth consecutive drop in the German IFO index was all but ignored as attention turns to Jackson Hole. Nonetheless, the announcement of the formation of a working group between France and Germany suggests some improvement in coordination towards finding a solution to the Eurozone crisis, while the ECB’s Asmussen further heightened speculation that the upcoming ECB meeting would detail the ECB’s proposed bond buying program.

Meanwhile, although the Fed’s Evans (non voter) highlighted his preference for more Fed quantitative easing an improvement in consumer confidence in August expected to be revealed today, will add to data playing against imminent QE.

All of the above leaves FX markets in limbo. The USD remains restrained by expectations of Fed QE but relatively better economic data compared to the Eurozone, suggests that any USD decline will be limited. Moreover, the fact that aggregate speculative USD positioning turned negative for the first time since September 2011, suggests that there is now some scope for short covering.

Conversely, hopes of ECB bond buying offer the EUR some solace but as noted, the many events over coming weeks in Europe, highlight the risks to the currency and we suspect that EUR/USD has topped out around 1.2500.

Market tensions set to return

Having returned from my summer break it appears that markets are in reasonable shape. Volatility is low, while equities have registered solid gains over recent weeks and markets in general appear to be more settled. In part this is due to hopes and expectations of further stimulus measures in the US and Europe. The coming weeks may be much less calm than experienced over the summer.

Having lost steam over recent weeks the USD may benefit from renewed market nervousness over coming weeks. On the one hand there are hopes of more Fed stimulus in September following comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke that there is “scope for further action”. More information will likely come from the Jackson Hole Fed symposium on Friday and expectations of more quantitative easing could restrain the USD.

On the other hand, it increasingly appears that the summer rally in risk assets is beginning to fade, a factor that will help the USD. The latter effect is likely to be more dominant on the USD especially as it is far from clear that another round of Fed quantitative easing will be USD negative. My analysis suggests that the impact on the USD from QE is ambiguous.

There is plenty of event risk over coming weeks which could feed potential nervousness in the market and help the USD. Markets have to contend with the IMF / EU review of Portugal’s aid program tomorrow which takes place against the background of reports that deficit targets have slipped amid weakening growth. In addition, the 6 September European Central Bank (ECB) meeting will be a major focus given expectations of a further cut in policy rates and other policy steps to purchase Eurozone peripheral debt

Aside from these events, Dutch general elections on 12 September could provoke more uncertainty given that polls currently show a split outcome while the decision by the German constitutional court on the ESM permanent bailout fund on the same date will add to tensions especially as the outcome remains unclear.

Meanwhile, discussions and speculation on Greece’s future within the Eurozone or at least some easing in its bailout terms and a potential formal request for Spanish bailout from the EFSF temporary bailout fund will run alongside these other uncertainties.

To cap it all off, these events combined with the the Eurogroup / Ecofin meeting on 14-15 September will leave markets with plenty to fret about over coming weeks. EUR/USD will struggle to extend upon its gains against this background, with moves above 1.2600 likely to provide better levels to sell EUR.

No QE3 but Bernanke gives some hope

Not only did Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke not discuss the potential for more quantitatiive easing QE3 but he also did not discuss many other options for Fed policy at Jackson Hole last Friday. The onus has now shifted to the 2-day Fed FOMC meeting on September 21 where markets are looking (hoping) for fresh policy measures. Such hopes helped US equity markets bounce back after initially reacting negatively to Bernanke’s speech.

Bernanke provided some hope to markets that the US economy wasn’t sliding into the abyss while offering the potential for further Fed stimulus even if QE3 wasn’t quite on the cards. This hope was sufficient to spur markets higher. However, importantly Bernanke noted the limitations of monetary policy in stimulating growth over the medium term.

In this respect there will be plenty of attention on President Obama’s speech on September 5 in which markets will be looking for a response from the administration at a time when the economy is becoming an increasingly important issue for the electorate.

In the meantime there are plenty of data releases to contend with this week including the August US jobs report, ISM manufacturing survey, US consumer confidence and various confidence surveys in Europe. Unfortunately the news will not be positive as the data releases are set to reinforce concerns of economic slowdown. The US jobs report is likely to reveal a limited, around 75k increase in non-farm payrolls according to consensus while the ISM manufacturing survey is set to drop into contraction territory.

Consequently markets may start the week in risk on mood but this is unlikely to last given renewed economic worries. Moreover, Eurozone peripheral country travails continue to exasperate markets, with concerns that some members of German Chancellor Merkel’s coalition plan to vote against the revamped EFSF bailout fund and news that two German banks have yet to commit on Greece’s bailout plan. Against this background the EUR continues to defy gravity around the 1.45 level versus USD but may yet come down to earth with a bang.

All Eyes On Jackson Hole

It’s all about Jackson Hole and ahead of the Fed symposium the USD index is likely to maintain its place in towards the middle end of its recent 73.47 – 75.12 range helped by weaker equity markets. Expectations or hopes that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce or at least hint at a fresh round of quantitative easing have receded allowing the USD to escape further pressure. Bernanke will likely keep all options open but there are still some in the FOMC who do not want to embark on QE3.

Although the USD may be saved from a further drubbing the commitment to maintain exceptionally accommodative monetary policy through Q2 2013 has contributed to a relative reduction in US bond yields and in turn is acting to restrain the US currency. A likely revision lower to US Q2 GDP will not help the USD in this respect.

One currency in particular that is reactive to yield differentials is USD/JPY, which registers an impressively high correlation with US – Japan yield differentials. Attempts this week by the Japanese authorities to encourage capital outflows and a downgrade of Japan’s credit ratings by Moody’s have done little to weaken the JPY.

Even the usually bearish JPY Japanese margin traders have been scaling back their long USD/JPY positions over recent weeks while speculative investors remain overly long (well above the three-month average) JPY according to IMM data. The risk of a shake out of long JPY positions is high but unless yield differentials reverse renewed JPY weakening looks unlikely in the short-term.

Eurozone peripheral issues will be put on the backburner ahead of the Jackson Hole meeting but that doesn’t mean they have gone away. As the continued pressure on Greek bonds shows markets continue to be fixated on the country’s problems and there may be growing nervousness ahead of the decision to distribute the next IMF loan tranche at the end of September. Nervousness also extended to Germany, with ratings agencies having to confirm the country’s AAA rating.

So far this week EUR has shown impressive resilience despite weak data in the form the German August IFO business and ZEW investor confidence surveys. However, there is a risk of EUR weakness should Bernanke not hint at QE3, with the currency already trading around the bottom of its multi-day range.

AUD has failed to recoup its end July losses and is still some 5% below its high above 1.10 versus USD. There is scope for some AUD appreciation especially as AUD speculative positioning has dropped sharply over recent weeks reducing sharply the net long overhang in the currency.

Moreover, markets have become overly aggressive in pricing in interest rate cuts in Australia and as evidenced from the AUD bounce following RBA Governor Stevens comments this morning (in which he referred to inflation data as still being concerning) there is an asymmetric risk to the AUD on the upside.

Nonetheless, AUD has experienced an increase in sensitivity to risk over recent weeks and will continue to be driven by gyrations in risk appetite. In this respect it is too early to assume the worst is over, suggesting that any further gains in AUD will be limited.

Japan FX Measures Underwhelm

Currencies continue to show remarkable stability in the face of elevated risk aversion which has prompted huge volatility in other asset markets. Although FX volatility has risen over recent weeks its rise is nothing compared to the jump in the VIX ‘fear gauge’ equity volatility measure. FX markets are in some form of limbo where there are conflicting forces at play and where there is no obvious currency to play. The lack of clarity in markets suggests that this situation will not change quickly.

The USD (index) is trading at the lower end of its recent ranges and verging on a retest of its July 27 low around 73.421, with the currency perhaps suffering from expectations that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce a desire to embark on more quantitative easing at Friday’s Jackson Hole symposium. Its losses could quickly reverse as such expectations are quickly dashed.

Indeed, while Bernanke will likely keep all options open any hint at QE3 is unlikely as the Fed maintains a high hurdle before any prospect of further quantitative easing is entertained. One option on the table is ‘sterilised’ large scale asset purchases which would not result in an increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. This would be far less negative for the USD than a fresh round of QE and may even prompt a rally in the currency as markets shift away from the idea of QE3.

The USD will benefit from high risk aversion except against safe havens such as the CHF and JPY. In this respect the USD remains a better bet than the EUR which has failed to garner much benefit from renewed ECB peripheral bond buying. Nonetheless, data yesterday failed to feed into negative EUR sentiment despite mixed manufacturing surveys and a sharp drop in the German ZEW investor confidence survey. EUR/USD remains trapped in a broad 1.42-1.45 range.

News that Moody’s ratings agency has downgraded Japan’s sovereign ratings by one notch to Aa3 is unlikely to have much impact on the JPY. Moody’s left the outlook stable while unlike the US and Europe around 95% of Japanese debt is held domestically, suggesting little FX and JGB impact. USD/JPY continues to garner some influence from yield differentials and given that the US bond yield advantage versus Japan has continued to narrow, USD/JPY continues to face downward pressure.

Japan announced measures to deal with JPY strength including the creation of a $100 billion emergency credit facility. However, the main impact on the JPY could come from increased monitoring of FX transactions with firms having to report on FX positions held by dealers. The statement made no comment on FX intervention and this is where there will be most disappointment for JPY bears. Overall, the actions are somewhat underwhelming and are unlikely to have much impact on the JPY. If anything, the JPY may actually strengthen given the lack of comment on FX intervention. USD/JPY downside could face strong technical support around 75.93, however.

Bernanke Boost

Last week ended with a downward revision to US Q2 GDP. The data clarified that growth momentum going into Q3 was indeed quite weak though it probably didn’t take the GDP revision to tell us this nugget of information, something that has been evident from the run of weak data over recent months.

Softer growth in Q2 placed particular attention on the Jackson Hole speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke in which he acknowledged the slowing in the pace of growth, but also forecast a moderate economic recovery in H2 2010. Importantly if the Fed is proven wrong he noted the FOMC would undertake unconventional (quantitative easing) QE II measures if needed.

The net impact on Bernanke’s speech and the smaller than expected downward revision to US Q2 GDP was to provide a boost to risk appetite. Sentiment will at least begin this week on a positive note in the knowledge that the Fed stands ready to act although double dip fears are far from over.

One trigger for Fed action will be a further deterioration in job market conditions and markets will pay close attention to the August US jobs report at the end of the week. Bloomberg consensus estimates forecast a 100 drop in payrolls, with private payrolls up 47k and the unemployment rate edging higher to 9.6%. Such an outcome would do little to boost confidence in a jobs market recovery.

The week begins with all eyes on Japan however, with an emergency Bank of Japan (BoJ) meeting in focus. USD/JPY has already jumped higher on the belief that concrete action will emerge to weaken the JPY. The risk of disappointment is high and at most the BoJ will announce measures to extend loans to banks. A lack of other action especially in the form of FX intervention alongside a likely increase in risk aversion once the Bernanke bounce wares off, will result in a renewed USD/JPY move lower, with a breach of 85.00 likely. As seen in the chart below a decisive turn in the Japanese stocks will be a key factor in helping to eventually drive USD/JPY higher.

Two other central bank meetings of note this week are the European Central Bank (ECB) and Sweden’s Riksbank meetings on Thursday. No change in policy by the ECB will be of little surprise but the release of new staff projections, with growth likely to be revised up in 2010 but left unchanged for 2011, will be of interest. Developments regarding open market operations will also be of attention. In contrast, the Riksbank is widely expected to hike rates by 25bps on the back of a firming economy and house price inflation.

A UK holiday today will likely keep liquidity thin and as noted above risk currencies including AUD, NZD and CAD as well as Asian currencies will start the week firmer but will struggle to hold gains as the week progresses. EUR/USD has benefited little from improved risk appetite and will have a hard time this week making much any headway although potential EUR/CHF buying from the SNB may give some, albeit limited support.

A renewed downside move to support around EUR/USD 1.2455 remains on the cards in the short term. Overall USD sentiment has become less negative as reflected in the CFTC IMM positioning data in contrast to a renewed deterioration in EUR speculative sentiment. We look for more of the same.

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