Chronology of a Crisis – endgame?

Please see below an extract from my forthcoming book Chronology of a Crisis (Searching Finance 2012).

The departure of Greece from the Euro is by no means a forgone conclusion but if it happens it is not clear that global policy makers have much ammunition left to shield markets from the resulting fallout.

Stimulus after stimulus has only left governments increasingly indebted. The price of such largesse is now being paid in the form of higher borrowing costs. Even central banks do not have much ammunition left. Admittedly further rounds of quantitative easing, and central bank balance sheet expansion may help to shore up confidence but the efficacy of such policy actions is questionable. Moreover, policy support may only help to buy time but if underlying structural issues are not resolved pressure could resume quickly.

Against this background Europe is under intense pressure and there is little time left before it results in something catastrophic for global markets via a disorderly break up of the Eurozone. EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB) have to act to stem the crisis. However, at the time of writing the ECB under the helm of Mario Draghi is steadfastly refusing to provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery either directly via lower interest rates or securities market purchases or indirectly via another Long term refinancing operation (LTRO). Any prospect of debt monetization as carried out already by other central banks including the Fed and Bank of England is a definite non-starter. The reason for this intransigence is that the ECB does not want to let Eurozone governments off the hook, worrying that any further assistance would allow governments to slow or even renege upon promised reforms.

Whether this is true or not it’s a dangerous game to play. The fact that the previously unthinkable could happen ie a country could exit the Eurozone should have by now prompted some major action by European officials. Instead the ECB is unwilling to give ground while Germany continues to stand in the way of any move towards debt mutualisation in the form of a common Eurobond and/or other measures such as awarding a banking license to the EFSF bailout fund which would effectively allow it to help recapitalize banks and purchase peripheral debt. Germany does not want to allow peripheral countries to be let off the hook either, arguing that they would benefit from Germany’s strong credit standing and lower yields without paying the costs.

To be frank, it’s too late for such brinkmanship. The situation in The Eurozone is rapidly spiraling out of control. While both the ECB and Germany may have valid arguments the bottom line is that the situation could get far worse if officials fail to act. As noted above there are various measures that could be enacted. Admittedly many of these will only buy time rather than fix the many and varied structural problems afflicting a group of countries tied together by a single currency and monetary policy and separate fiscal policies but at the moment time is what is needed the most. Buying time will allow policymakers to enact reforms, enhance productivity, reform labour markets, increase investment funds etc. Unfortunately European policy makers do not appear to have grasped this fact. Now more than at any time during the crisis much depends on the actions of policy makers. This is where the major uncertainty lies.

If officials do not act to stem the crisis, economic and market turmoil will reach proportions exceeding that of even the Lehmans bust.

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Central banks ready to act

Markets are in wait and see mode ahead of Greek elections with range trading likely to dominate market action, albeit with a slightly risk on bias. US data disappointed once again, with jobless claims coming in worse than expected, compounding the growing fears about deterioration in US job market conditions. Perversely the poor jobs data coming against the background of soft May CPI inflation data have fuelled expectations of Fed action at next week’s Federal Reserve FOMC meeting.

It is not only the Fed that markets believe may act, with reports overnight suggesting that there may be some form of coordinated action by central banks should the Greek election outcome prove to be unfavourable. On this front, the news appears to be a little more encouraging as expectations that pro bailout parties will garner relatively more votes has grown as reflected in the 10% rally in Greek shares overnight.

If it takes weak economic data for markets to rally nowadays then there will be plenty available today, with declines expected for the May Empire manufacturing survey and June Michigan confidence, while industrial production is only likely to register a marginal gain in May. While the data may add more fuel to the fire, I suspect it will still be insufficient to result in more Fed balance sheet expansion.

European Central Bank (ECB) President Draghi is scheduled to speak today but I doubt he will suggest a move towards another LTRO or Securities Market Purchases. On the subject of central banks the Bank of Japan will announce its policy decision today but I expect no change in stance despite the fact that the 1% inflation goal remains a long way off. Currencies will remain in ranges but hopes of central bank action and a favourable outcome to the Greek elections will provide support for risk currencies and keep the USD under pressure.

US dollar could stall as QE hopes rise

Growth concerns are increasingly accompanying Eurozone tensions as major weights on market sentiment. US jobs data at the end of last week which revealed a disappointing 69k increase May payrolls added to other data including weaker than expected Chinese purchasing managers index (PMI) and even more disappointing Eurozone data highlighting intensifying downside risks to economic activity.

Combined with the lack of traction towards solutions to the Eurozone crisis it has led to an acceleration in the demand for safe haven assets. The weak US data has also reopened the debate about more US quantitative easing, with Fed Chairman Bernanke’s congressional testimony on the economic outlook on Thursday likely to garner plenty of attention.

Another central bank under pressure to act is the European Central Bank (ECB) but action such as restarting its Securities Market Purchases program and/or a third Long Term LTRO are unlikely to take place at least until after the Greek election on June 17 if at all. Until then investors will have to put up with more procrastination, prevarication and inaction from policy makers in Europe as the ECB continues its game of chess with European politicians.

Other central banks in focus this week include the Reserve Bank of India (RBA) and Bank of England (BoE) but while the ECB may still cut policy interest rates this week it is not obvious that the other central banks will follow suit despite growing pressure for easier policy. Against this background risk measures will remain highly elevated while core bond yields will remain suppressed and the USD will remain on the front foot.

The weaker than forecast US May jobs report has really set the cat among the pigeons. The prospects of more Fed quantitative easing is firmly back on the table and while Fed Chairman Bernanke is unlikely to countenance such action in his testimony this week, the market will still speculate on this option. Consequently the USDs one way bet is not longer so clear cut despite the elevated level of risk aversion providing some support for the currency.

Ahead of Bernanke’s testimony on Thursday the USD will struggle to make too much headway leaving the currency to consolidate its gains in the short term. Other US data releases this week are inconsequential for FX markets although the Fed’s Beige Book will be watched for clues ahead of the Fed’s 19-20 June FOMC meeting.

EUR/USD is well off its lows and will consolidate ahead of Thursday’s ECB meeting. Event risk is high and various rumours have resulted in a cautious tone for EUR bears. Talk of a ‘secret master plan’ consisting of structural reforms, banking union, fiscal union and political union to save the EUR as well as of the ECB buying sovereign bonds will keep markets wary of aggressively selling EUR from current levels. Attention is centred on Spain and its banking sector and debate about the country is next in line for a bailout.

Worries about Spain and of course the outcome of Greek elections on June 17 will limit any bounce in the EUR. Nonetheless, speculative positioning in EUR/USD reached another all time low in the latest week according to the CFTC IMM data, suggesting that scope for short covering is growing. EUR/USD will find technical support around its 2012 low around 1.2287 while upside potential will be restricted to resistance around 1.2505.

Anxious wait for Greek PSI

An anxious wait for the outcome of the Greek private sector involvement in a debt swap taken together with a bout of risk aversion and confirmation of weak growth in the Eurozone (Q4 GDP dropped by 0.3%) have set the scene for nervous trading in EUR/USD. Confirmation of the Greek debt swap deadline on Thursday has done little to stead nerves.

The EUR has lost plenty of ground over recent days but will likely consolidate ahead of the outcome of the PSI. Direction will then depend on whether there has been sufficient voluntary participation by bond holders to avoid forcing private sector involvement. In the event of strong participation the EUR will rally but I suggest selling into any such rally.

Another factor that is playing a role in dampening EUR demand is the fact that the European Central Bank (ECB) balance sheet continues to expand at a rapid rate, to a record EUR 3.02 trillion last week following the second ECB long term refinancing operation (LTRO). Overall, expect little respite for the EUR. Effectively the ECB is undertaking quantitative easing via the back door, which is weighing on the EUR in the process.

USD/JPY has pulled back from its highs in the wake of an increase in risk aversion. As I have been noting over recent days the move in USD/JPY had overshot its short term ‘fair value’ estimate according to my quantitative models. The drop in USD/JPY fits into line with this view. The fact that US bond yields have pulled back from recent highs has also played into the drop in USD/JPY.

While I remain bearish on the JPY over the medium term, there is scope for a further move to technical support the 80.00 level in the short term. Further out, much will depend on the ability of Japanese officials to follow through on more aggressive policy to reflate the economy.

The Bank of Japan’s inflation goal will need a determined effort in terms of more aggressive monetary policy to enable it to succeed. This will ensure that Japanese government bond yields remain suppressed at a time when I expect US bond yields to move higher. Consequently USD/JPY will likely move higher too, with my year end target remaining at 85.00.

Risk currencies buoyed

Positive developments helped to buoy markets. Although US durable goods orders were weaker than forecast a jump in US consumer confidence to its highest since February 2011 gave equity markets and risk assets in general a lift. Even in Europe the news was encouraging as Italy managed to auction 10-year debt at a cheaper rate than previously while Portugal passed a third review of its bailout programme and noted that unlike Greece it would need a second bailout.

There was some negative news however, with the European Central Bank (ECB) temporarily suspending the eligibility of Greek bonds as collateral for its funding operations and Ireland calling a referendum on the European fiscal compact. Nonetheless, hopes of a healthy take up at today’s ECB second 3-year Long term refinancing operation (LTRO) will keep markets in positive mood in the short term.

The USD index continues to look restrained when risk assets are rallying. Given the positive equity market mood overnight it is no surprise that the USD came under further pressure while the EUR looks firm ahead of today’s 3-year LTRO by the ECB. Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony will give the USD some direction but we do not expect him to deliver any big surprises. EUR/USD will continue to rally if we are correct about a strong EUR 600-700 billion take up at the LTRO but the currency pair will meet resistance around 1.3550.

JPY has lost ground against various cross including USD, EUR and AUD. Much of its weakness is related to widening yield differentials but our models reveal that USD/JPY in particular has overshot its implied value. Unless US yields widen further versus Japan, JPY could even rebound over coming days. EUR/JPY has breached its 200 day moving however, which is a bullish signal for the currency pair. A generally firm EUR tone likely to be maintained in the short term will also be exhibited versus JPY.

Warnings by Swiss National Bank head Jordan reiterating his stance of defending the EUR/CHF floor of 1.20 has done little to push the currency pair higher. EUR/CHF has enjoyed a strong relationship with movements in interest rate differentials. This implies that it will take a relative rise in German yields versus Swiss yields for EUR/CHF to move higher. This is certainly viable given the deterioration in Swiss economic data over recent months. Eventually EUR/CHF will move higher but over the short term it is unlikely to move far from the 1.20 level.

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