Europe’s crunch time

It’s crunch time for EU leaders and the European Central Bank (ECB). 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.

It’s good to see that European officials are finally talking about boosting growth and realising that austerity is killing the patient. However, measures such as increasing trade, investment etc are all long term in nature. Europe needs action now before it’s too late. After years of keeping the Eurozone together by sheer force of political will rather than strong fundamental reasons lets hope that politicians in Europe begin to realize this before it’s too late. The lack of traction at this week’s EU summit was disappointing but with their backs to the wall ahead of Greek elections in mid June Germany and the ECB may be forced to give ground. In the meantime the beleaguered EUR looks destIned to remain under pressure.

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.

Waiting for a solution to Europe’s crisis

The boost to sentiment following Germany’s approval of changes to the EFSF bailout fund was brief. Although the outcome of the vote was not particularly surprising political concerns were assuaged by the fact that Chancellor Merkel secured support from within her coalition. Markets were also helped by a bigger than expected drop in weekly US jobless claims but this also failed to provide a lasting impact.

The bottom line is that there is still a huge degree of scepticism on the ability of policymakers to resolve the crisis in the eurozone periphery while growth worries have not receded. Even the approved changed to the EFSF bailout fund are increasingly being seen as old news given the view that it will need deeper changes including ‘leveraging’ it up.

Consequently risk aversion remains at a highly elevated level and is showing no sign of easing. It may be difficult to turn sentiment around as we go into the final quarter of the year, especially as those investors registering profits for the year may want to capitalise on these profits rather than sit through continued volatility in the weeks ahead. Indeed the sharp drop in gold prices over the last couple of weeks even in an environment of elevated risk aversion may reflect this.

Similarly risk assets may struggle to recover over coming weeks unless there is a major improvement in the situation in Europe or in growth data. Markets will go into the end of this week looking ahead to key events next week including an Ecofin meeting at the beginning of next week, a European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and the US September jobs report.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European Finance Ministers on Monday especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop.

While the extent of short market positioning at the beginning of week left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering diminishes. Unless the Ecofin meeting delivers on expectations EUR/USD will likely re-test the 26 September low around 1.3363.

Risk Aversion to remain elevated

It remains a tumultuous time for markets, gripped by a cacophony of concerns ranging from the lack of resolution to the Eurozone debt crisis to the failure to reach agreement on raising the US debt ceiling and associated deficit reduction plans. Mingled among these is the growing evidence that economic growth is turning out weaker than expected. Meanwhile Europe’s crisis appears to be shifting from bad to worse, as reflected in a shift in attention towards the hitherto untouched Italy although Italian concerns have eased lately.

The release of the EU bank stress test results at the end of last week have not helped, with plenty of criticism about their severity and rigour following the failure of only 8 banks out of the 90 tested. Expectations centred on several more banks failing, with much more capital required than the EUR 2.5 billion shortfall revealed in the tests. Answering to this criticism officials note that there has already been a significant amount of capital raised over recent months by banks, but this will be insufficient to stem the growing disbelief over the results.

Attention is still very much focussed on Greece and reaching agreement on a second bailout for the country, with further discussions at the special EU summit on July 21. The contentious issue remains the extent of private sector participation in any debt restructuring. The decision to enhance the flexibility of the EFSF bailout fund to embark on debt buybacks has not helped. Consequently contagion risks to other countries in the Eurozone periphery are at a heightened state. Despite all of this the EUR has shown a degree of resilience, having failed to sustain its recent drop below 1.40 versus USD.

One explanation for the EUR’s ability to avoid a steeper decline is that the situation on the other side of the pond does not look much better. Hints of QE3 in the US and the impasse between Republicans and Democrats on budget deficit cutting measures tied to any increase in the debt ceiling are limiting the USD’s ability to benefit from Europe’s woes. Moreover, more weak data including a drop in the Empire manufacturing survey and a drop in the Michigan consumer sentiment index to a two-year low, have added to the worries about US recovery prospects.

Against this background risk aversion will remain elevated, supporting the likes of the CHF and JPY while the EUR and USD will continue to fight it out for the winner of the ugliest currency contest. Assuming that a deal will eventually be cobbled together to raise the US debt ceiling (albeit with less ambitious deficit cutting measures than initially hoped for) and that the Fed does not embark on QE3, the EUR will emerge as the most ugly currency, but there will be plenty of volatility in the meantime.

Data and events this week include more US Q2 earnings, June housing starts and existing home sales. While housing data are set to increase, the overall shape of the housing market remains very weak. In Europe, July business and investor surveys will be in focus, with a sharp fall in the German ZEW investor confidence survey likely and a further softening in July purchasing managers indices across the eurozone. The German IFO business confidence survey is also likely to decline in July but will still point to healthy growth in the country. In the UK Bank of England MPC minutes will confirm no bias for policy rate changes with a 7-2 vote likely, while June retail sales are likely to bounce back.

Risk off mood

A ‘risk off’ tone is quickly permeating its way through the market psyche as tensions surrounding the eurozone periphery reach fever pitch. This is reflected in the sharp jump in equity volatility as indicated by the VIX ‘fear’ gauge. Equity markets and risk trades in general look set to remain under pressure in the current climate.

Moreover, the EUR which is finally succumbing to bad news about the periphery will continue to face pressure over the short-term. Against this background economic data will likely be relegated to the background this week but it worth noting that what data there is on tap, is likely to send a weaker message, with data such as durable goods orders in the US as well as various purchasing managers indices (PMI) data in the eurozone today likely to show some slippage.

The Greek saga remains at the forefront of market attention, with restructuring speculation remaining high despite various denials over the weekend by Greek and European Central Bank (ECB) officials. News that Norway has frozen payments to Greece, whilst Fitch ratings agency’s downgrades of Greece’s ratings by 3 notches and S&P’s downgrade of Italy’s ratings outlook to negative, have all contributed to the malaise afflicting the periphery.

This weekend’s local election in Spain in which Prime Minister Zapatero and his Socialist Party suffered its worst defeat in more than 30 years leading to a transfer of power in the Spanish regions, will lead to concerns about the ability of the government to carry out much needed legislative changes.

It is difficult to see any improvement in sentiment towards the peripheral Europe and consequently the EUR over the short-term. In Greece, Prime Minister Papandreou will attempt to push through further unpopular austerity measures through parliament this week in advance of a 5th bailout tranche of EUR 12 billion scheduled for next month. This comes at a time when opinion polls show the government losing more support and 80% of those surveyed saying they would not accept more austerity measures.

The deterioration in sentiment for the EUR has been rapid as reflected in the CFTC IMM data, with net long speculative positions now at their lowest since 15 February and heading further downhill. Conversely, USD short covering has been significant though there is still a hefty USD short overhang, which points to more USD short covering as EUR sentiment sours.

Nonetheless, the USD still has plenty of risks hanging over it including the fact that it still suffers from an adverse yield differential (note that 2-year Treasury yields have fallen to the lowest since 6 December 2010). Safe haven currencies in particular CHF are the key beneficiaries and notably EUR/CHF touched a record low around 1.2354 and is showing little sign of any rebound.

EUR boosted, USD under pressure

Market attention remains fully focussed on events in Japan especially related to the country’s nuclear facilities. Risk aversion has spiked higher as a result, with ongoing Middle East tensions adding to the risk off tone. CHF is a key beneficiary of safe haven demand but the picture for JPY is obscured by repatriation expectations on one hand and FX intervention risks/Bank of Japan liquidity injections on the other, keeping USD/JPY clsoe to the 82.00 level. In contrast the AUD is vulnerable to a drop below parity with the USD on Japan worries, especially as Australia is a key destination for Japanese investment and therefore potential for reversal of such flows if Japanese institutions repatriate funds.

The EUR recovered over recent days as worries about the eurozone periphery ease and peripheral bonds spreads narrow. It is only a matter of time before overly long market positioning catches up with the EUR especially as the prospects of further interest rate support to the currency looked limited; markets have already priced in 75bps of policy rate hikes in the eurozone this year, which looks appropriate. It is difficult to see markets pricing in any more tightening than this over coming weeks. Despite its bounce back EUR/USD will struggle to break resistance around 1.4036.

Markets will digest the fallout from the informal EU leaders meeting last Friday which prepared the groundwork for the official meeting on 24/25 March. The initial reaction of the EUR appears to be positive but there is a significant risk of disappointment if the outcome of the meeting on 24/25 March does not live up to expectations. Indeed although Friday’s meeting resulted in an agreement in principle of a new “pact for the Euro” much will depend on the eventual details later this month.

Leaders also agreed on lowering interest rates to Greece by 100bps, and in principle enlarging the scope of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund to EUR 440 billion. The main positive surprise was opening the door for the fund to purchase eurozone debt. Data releases will offer little support to the EUR this week, with limited gains in the March German ZEW investor confidence survey today likely to leave markets unperturbed.

The USD’s gains last week proved short-lived and the currency will be tested by another relatively dovish Fed FOMC statement today and a benign reading for core CPI inflation in February. The Fed FOMC meeting is unlikely to deliver any changes to the Fed’s stance and whilst there has recently been some speculation that the Fed will soon remove its “extended period” comment, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The statement will remind markets that the Fed is in no rush to alter its policy settings, an outcome that may limit the ability of the USD to strengthen this week even if data releases continue to remain on the positive side, including manufacturing survey and industrial production over coming days.

Talk but no action

The eurozone periphery remains in the eye of the storm but markets may have to wait before any concrete action is taken. The possibility of increasing the size of the bailout fund (EFSF), preparation of new European bank stress tests and/or allowing the EFSF to purchase eurozone government debt are all on the table but so far agreement has been lacking. Ministers apparently rejected the idea of increasing the size of the fund from EUR 440 billion to EUR 750 billion whilst disagreement over stricter criteria may also be hampering any progress.

Nonetheless, the EUR has found renewed support, helped by the firm German IFO investor confidence survey and news that Russia is looking to buy EFSF bonds. EUR/USD upside may be face a hurdle around 1.3500 over the short term and gains above this level are likely to be difficult to sustain given the ongoing uncertainties about the EFSF none of which are likely to be resolved anytime soon. The bottom line is that talk but not action will not be sufficient to keep the EUR supported.

GBP is also doing well, partly on the coat tails of a firmer EUR but also in the wake of an acceleration in UK CPI inflation which came in at 3.7% YoY a two year high, surpassing the Bank of England’s (BoE) ceiling for the 10th straight month. Inflation is likely to remain elevated pushing closer to 4% due to the VAT hike to 20% which came into effect at the beginning of this year. The data puts the BoE in a difficult situation testing the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) expectation that the jump in inflation will prove temporary. However, the market is increasing taking the stance that a rate hike is going to take placer sooner rather than later, with a growing probability of a rate hike.

Since the end of last year there has been a 25bps spread widening (between 2nd contract rate futures) as markets have become more hawkish on UK interest rate expectations. This has coincided with an increasing correlation with GBP/USD resulting in the currency pair cracking above the psychologically important 1.60 level. Much will depend on whether the BoE’s predictions come true. If inflation remains sticky on the upside the Bank may be forced into an earlier tightening. Whether this is good news for GBP will depend on the economy. The worst case scenario is premature monetary tightening just as austerity measures start to bite.

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