Germany feeling the pressure

Stocks fell back into negative territory following yet more soft US economic data. The 0.4% drop in US retail sales ex-autos was particularly disappointing, once again raising expectations that the Fed may need to deliver another round of quantitative easing. The rally in gold prices overnight was in part related to such expectations. Continued pressure on peripheral Eurozone debt reflects another angle of market pressure, not helped by the downgrading of Spain’s credit ratings by Moodys which effectively highlighted that Spain’s call for external help was a sign of weakness.

A further test of sentiment will be in the form of Italian bond auctions today. Perhaps more worrying is the sell off in German debt over recent sessions, indicating that investors are finally realising that Germany will not be spared from a “Grexit”. Whether this prompts Mrs Merkel into some form of action to help stem the crisis is another question entirely. Ahead of Greek elections on June 17 markets will enter into a state of limbo but the bias remains for elevated risk aversion.

FX markets are similarly rangebound, with the USD capped by hopes/expectations of more Fed QE and the EUR capped by peripheral Eurozone tensions. As a result EUR/USD has struggled to sustain break above resistance around 1.2624 and will continue to fail to the topside given the uncertainty around the Greek elections on June 17th. Bad news in the form of the Spanish debt downgrade and peripheral debt pressures, suggest that the EUR will remain under pressure over coming sessions, making it increasingly difficult to hold above the psychologically important 1.25 level.

The main focus today will be on the Swiss National Bank policy decision. While no policy action is expected attention will focus on the SNB’s stance on its 1.20 EUR/CHF floor. Upward pressure on the CHF has intensified over recent weeks as the situation in the Eurozone has worsened, and latest reserves data highlighted a big jump in reserves during May as the SNB had to buy EUR against the CHF. A shift in the EUR/CHF floor looks unlikely but the recent upward pressure on CHF could pale into insignificant compared to any upward pressure following a Greek Euro exit.


Euro still looks uglier than the dollar

Currency markets continue to vacillate between US debt ceiling concerns and eurozone peripheral debt worries. Despite a lack of agreement to raise the debt ceiling, with House Republicans failing to back a proposal by House speak Boehner, the USD actually strengthened towards the end of the week as eurozone peripheral issues shifted back into focus.

The resilience of the USD to the lack of progress in raising the debt ceiling is impressive and reveals that the EUR looks even uglier than the USD, in many investors’ eyes.

Much in terms of direction for the week ahead will depend on the magnitude of any increase in the debt ceiling and accompanying budget deficit reduction measures. Assuming that a deal is reached ahead of the August 2 deadline it is not obvious that the USD and risk currencies will enjoy a rally unless the debt ceiling deal is a solid and significant one.

Given the limited market follow through following the recent deal to provide Greece with a second bailout, the EUR remains wholly unable to capitalise on the USD’s woes.

A reminder that all is not rosy was the fact that Moody’s ratings agency placed Spain’s credit ratings on review for possible downgrade while reports that the Spanish parliament will be dissolved on September 26 for early elections on November 20 will hardly help sentiment for the EUR. Compounding the Spanish news doubts that the EFSF bailout fund will be ready to lend to Greece by the next tranche deadline in mid-September and whether Spain and Italy will participate, have grown.

Some key data releases and events will also likely to garner FX market attention, with attention likely to revert to central bank decisions including the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Reserve Bank of Australia and US July jobs report. None of the central banks are likely to shift policy rates, however.

The risk for the USD this week is not only that there is disappointing result to the debt ceiling discussions, but also that there is a weak outcome to the US July jobs report. An increase of around 100k in payrolls, with the unemployment rate remaining at 9.2%, will fixate market attention on weak growth and if this increases expectations for a fresh round of Fed asset purchases the USD could be left rather vulnerable.

The RBA is highly unlikely to raise interest rates but the tone of the accompanying statement is unlikely to be dovish. The RBA noted the strong emphasis on the Q2 CPI inflation data and in the event it came in higher than expected, a fact that supports my expectation that the Bank will hike policy rates at least once more by the end of this year.

Markets have largely priced out expectations of a rate cut but there is still scope for a more hawkish shift in Australian interest rate markets, which will give the AUD a boost. However, AUD remains vulnerable to developments in the US and Europe as well as overall risk aversion, and a preferable way to play a positive AUD view in the current environment is via the NZD.

Euro Resilience To Fade

There will at least be a little more liquidity in FX markets today following yesterday’s public holidays in the US and UK. Whether this means that there will be a break out of recent ranges is another matter. Clearly global growth worries as well as eurozone peripheral debt concerns are having an important impact on market dynamics but are also providing conflicting signals.

On the one hand the USD ought to garner support from Europe’s problems but on the other, safe haven demand and growth concerns is bolstering demand for US Treasuries keeping US bond yields at very low levels despite the lack of progress on increasing the US debt ceiling and agreeing on medium to long term deficit reduction.

In the wake of a run of US data disappointments including April durable goods orders, Q1 GDP and weekly jobless claims last week, fears of a loss of momentum in the US economy have intensified. Manufacturing and consumer confidence surveys in the form of the May Chicago PMI and Conference Board consumer confidence survey today will be closely scrutinised to determine whether the ‘soft patch’ in the US economy will persist.

This will have important implications for the USD as worries about growth may feed into expectations that the Fed’s ultra loose monetary policy will be sustained for longer. As it is US 2-year bond yields have dropped to their lowest level this year.

Fortunately for the USD only USD/JPY and USD/CHF have maintained a statistically strong correlation with bond yield differentials although we expect the break in relationship for other currencies to prove temporary. In the case of USD/JPY, yield differentials have narrowed between the US and Japan, a factor playing for JPY appreciation.

Perhaps the fact that unlike the US Japanese data has on balance been beating expectations notwithstanding disappointing April household spending and industrial output data has helped to narrow the yield gap with the US. One explanation is that that worst fears of post earthquake weakness have not been borne out, suggesting that economic expectations have been overly pessimistic. In any case, USD/JPY 80 is still a major line in the sand for the currency pair.

The EUR continues to show impressive resistance, with EUR/USD breaking technical resistance around 1.4345, which opens up a test of 1.4423. Reports that Greece had failed to meet any of its fiscal targets and of harsh conditions set by European officials for further aid have failed to dent the EUR. Whether the market is simply becoming fatigued or complacent will be important to determine if the EUR can gain further.

A report in the WSJ that Germany is considering dropping its push for early rescheduling of Greek debt has given some support to the EUR too. Ongoing discussions this week are unlikely to prove conclusive however, with attention turning to meetings of European officials on 20th and 24th June. I still believe EUR gains will limited, with the break above 1.4345 likely to prove shortlived.

Euro Problems Intensify

Following the bullish build up and increasingly lofty expectations for the US December jobs report the actual outcome was disappointing, at least on the headline reading. Non farm payrolls rose 103k which in reality was not that much less than initial forecasts but the real consensus was somewhat higher following the robust ADP private sector jobs report earlier in the week. There was some mitigation in the 70k upward revisions to October and November and surprisingly large decline in the unemployment rate to 9.4%. Consequently the market impact was less severe than it could have been and even the USD ended higher on the day.

Nonetheless, the data provided a dose of reality to markets’ optimistic expectations and this was reinforced by Fed Chairman Bernanke in testimony on Friday. He highlighted that it will take “considerable time” before the unemployment rate drops to a normal level, which could threaten recovery. Even the drop in the unemployment rate revealed in the December is report is vulnerable to a reversal given it was in part due to a drop in the labour force. This reality provided support to bond markets which may undermine the USD given the drop in bond yields. However, the USD’s anti-EUR credentials suggest that it will remain resilient.

Eurozone’s woes continued to heat up last week as the holiday season relief proved temporary. Stress in peripheral debt markets increased despite buying from the ECB last week and faced with debt sales in Italy, Portugal and Spain this week the pressure is likely to continue over coming days. Whether its worries about a resolution to funding issues and investor haircuts and/or the growing divergence in growth across the eurozone, the EUR continues to look vulnerable in the absence of any resolution to these issues. Having easily slipped below its 200-day moving average EUR/USD will eye support around 1.2767.

US data this week will look upbeat and provide more support for the USD, with December retail sales likely to record a healthy increase both on the headline and ex-autos readings as indicated by strong holiday sales. Similarly industrial production will reveal a solid gain whilst the Beige Book will highlight that economic conditions across the Federal Reserve districts, have continued to improve. The weak spot will remain housing but despite this consumer spending and sentiment are likely to be reported as resilient. The Beige Book is unlikely to reveal much of an inflation threat despite higher commodity prices. This will be echoed in the core CPI reading this week.

Although headline inflation in the eurozone breached the 2.0% threshold in December the ECB is unlikely to use it as an excuse to move towards tighter monetary conditions any time soon. The ECB meeting this week will nonetheless likely note the increase in various inflation gauges in President Trichet’s press statement. Most attention will be focused on any comments that Trichet makes regarding peripheral bond strains. In reality there is little that he can say that will alter market sentiment. Whilst an ongoing commitment to buy debt will help on the margin it will do little to stem the growing tide of negative sentiment towards eurozone assets.

Peripheral debt concerns intensify

European peripheral debt concerns have allowed the USD a semblance of support as the EUR/USD pullback appears to have gathered momentum following its post FOMC meeting peak of around 1.4282. The blow out in peripheral bond spreads has intensified, with Greek, Portuguese and Irish 10 year debt spreads against bonds widening by around 290bps, 136bps and 200bps, respectively from around mid October.

The EUR appears to have taken over from the USD, at least for now, as the weakest link in terms of currencies. EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a break below technical support around 1.3732. Aside from peripheral debt concerns US bonds yields have increased over recent days, with the spread between 10-year US and German bonds widening by around 17 basis points in favour of the USD since the beginning of the month.

The correlation between the bond spread and EUR/USD is significant at around 0.76 over the past 3-months, highlighting the importance of yield spreads in the recent move in the USD against some currencies. Similarly high correlations exist for AUD/USD, USD/JPY and USD/CHF.

Data today will offer little direction for markets suggesting that the risk off mood may continue. US data includes the September trade deficit. The data will be scrutinized for the balance with China, especially following the ongoing widening in the bilateral deficit over recent months, hitting a new record of $28 billion in August. Similarly an expected increase in China’s trade surplus will add to the currency tensions between the two countries. FX tensions will be highlighted at the Seoul G20 meeting beginning tomorrow, with criticism of US QE2 gathering steam.

Commodity and Asian currencies are looking somewhat precariously perched in the near term, with AUD/USD verging on a renewed decline through parity despite robust September home loan approvals data released this morning, which revealed a 1.3% gain, the third straight monthly increase.

However, the NZD looks even more vulnerable following comments by RBNZ governor Bollard that the strength of the Kiwi may reduce the need for higher interest rates. As a result, AUD/NZD has spiked and could see a renewed break above 1.3000 today. Asian currencies are also likely to remain on the backfoot today due both to a firmer USD in general but also nervousness ahead of the G20 meeting.

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