Euro weaker despite hawkish ECB

The bounce in EUR/USD following the European Central Bank (ECB) press statement following its unchanged rate decision proved short-lived with the currency dropping sharply as longs were quickly unwound, with EUR/USD hitting a low around 1.4478. The sell off occurred despite the fact that the ECB delivered on expectations that it would flag a July rate hike, with the insertion of “strong vigilance” in the press statement.

The reaction was a classic ‘buy on rumour, sell on fact’ outcome and highlights just how long EUR the market was ahead of the ECB meeting. Interestingly the interest rate differential (2nd futures contract) has not widened versus the USD despite the hawkish ECB message and in any case interest rate differentials are not driving EUR/USD at present as reflected in low correlations.

This leaves the EUR susceptible to Greek developments and the news on this front is less positive. ECB President Trichet ruled out any direct participation (ie no rollover of ECB Greek debt holdings) in a second Greek bailout whilst potentially accepting a plan of voluntary private participation in any debt rollover. The ECB’s stance is at odds with that put forward by German Finance Minister Schaeuble pressuring investors to accept longer maturities on their Greek debt holdings.

In contrast the USD appears to be finding growing relief from the fact that the Federal Reserve is putting up a high hurdle before QE3 is considered. As highlighted by Fed Chairman Bernanke earlier this week the Fed is not considering QE3 despite a spate of weak US data. This was echoed overnight by the Fed’s Lockhart and Plosser, with the former noting that there would need to be a substantially weaker economy and the latter noting that there would have to be a “pretty extraordinary” deterioration in the economy to support QE3.

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ECB to Hike, BoJ, BoE & RBA on Hold

The better than expected March US jobs report will likely help to shift the debate further towards the hawkish camp in the Fed. There is little this week to match the potency of payrolls in terms of market moving data this week. Instead attention will focus on a raft of Fed speakers over coming days as well as the minutes of the March 15 FOMC meeting.

This week’s Fed speakers include Lockhart, Evans, Bernanke, Kocherlakota, Plosser and Lacker. Of these only Lockhart and Lacker are non voters. Given the intense focus on recent Fed comments FX markets will be on the lookout for anything that hints a broader Fed support for a quicker hike to interest rates and/or reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet.

In any case the USD may struggle to make much headway ahead of an anticipated European Central Bank (ECB) rate hike of 25 basis point on Thursday. Much will depend on the press statement, however. If the ECB merely validates market expectations of around 75bps of policy rate hikes this year the EUR will struggle to rally.

It may also be possible that once the ECB meeting is out of the way the EUR may finally be susceptible to pressure related to ongoing peripheral tensions. Last week the outcome of the Irish bank stress tests, and political vacuum in Portugal ahead of elections set for June 5 were well absorbed by the EUR but it is questionable whether the dichotomy between widening peripheral bond spreads and the EUR can continue.

The Tankan survey in Japan released today unsurprisingly revealed a deterioration in sentiment. The survey will provide important clues for the Bank of Japan (BoJ) at its meeting on April 6 & 7th. Although a shift in Japan’s ultra easy monetary policy is unlikely whilst strong liquidity provision is set to continue, pressure to do more will likely grow. This will be accentuated by a likely downward revision in the economic outlook by the BoJ.

The JPY will not take much direction from this meeting. Nonetheless, its soft tone may continue helped by foreign securities outflows (particularly out of bonds), with USD/JPY eyeing the 16 December high around 84.51. Speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals a sharp deterioration in JPY sentiment as the currency evidence that finally the currency maybe regaining its mantle of funding currency.

It is still too early for the Bank of England to hike rates despite elevated inflation readings and MPC members are likely to wait for the May Quarterly Inflation Report before there is decisive shift in favour of raising policy rates. Even then, members will have to grapple with the fact that economic data remains relatively downbeat as reflected in the weaker than expected March manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) data.

Today’s PMI construction data will likely paint a similar picture. The fact that a rate hike is not expected by the market will mean GBP should not suffer in the event of a no change decision by the BoE this week but instead will find more direction from a host of data releases including industrial production. GBP has come under growing pressure against the EUR since mid February and a test of the 25 October high of 0.89415 is on the cards this week.

Finally, congratulations to the Indian cricket team who won a well deserved victory in the Cricket World Cup final over the weekend. The celebrations by Indians around the world will go on for a long while yet.

Euro Sentiment Jumps, USD Sentiment Dives

The bounce in the EUR against a broad range of currencies as well as a shift in speculative positioning highlights a sharp improvement in eurozone sentiment. Indeed, the CFTC IMM data reveals that net speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time since mid-November. A rise in the German IFO business confidence survey last week, reasonable success in peripheral bond auctions (albeit at unsustainable yields), hawkish ECB comments and talk of more German support for eurozone peripheral countries, have helped.

A big driver for EUR at present appears to be interest rate differentials. In the wake of recent commentary from Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet following the last ECB meeting there has been a sharp move in interest rate differentials between the US and eurozone. This week’s European data releases are unlikely to reverse this move, with firm readings from the flash eurozone country purchasing managers indices (PMI) today and January eurozone economic sentiment gauges expected.

Two big events will dictate US market activity alongside more Q4 earnings reports. President Obama’s State of The Union address is likely to pay particular attention on the US budget outlook. Although the recent fiscal agreement to extend the Bush era tax cuts is positive for the path of the economy this year the lack of a medium to long term solution to an expanding budget deficit could come back to haunt the USD and US bonds.

The Fed FOMC meeting on Wednesday will likely keep markets treading water over the early part of the week. The Fed will maintain its commitment to its $600 billion asset purchase program. Although there is plenty of debate about the effectiveness of QE2 the program is set to be fully implemented by the end of Q2 2011. The FOMC statement will likely note some improvement in the economy whilst retaining a cautious tone. Markets will also be able to gauge the effects of the rotation of FOMC members, with new member Plosser possibly another dissenter.

These events will likely overshadow US data releases including Q4 real GDP, Jan consumer confidence, new home sales, and durable goods orders. GDP is likely to have accelerated in Q4, confidence is set to have improved, but at a low level, housing market activity will remain burdened by high inventories and durable goods orders will be boosted by transport orders. Overall, the encouraging tone of US data will likely continue but markets will also keep one eye on earnings. Unfortunately for the USD, firm US data are being overshadowed by rising inflation concerns elsewhere.

Against the background of intensifying inflation tensions several rate decisions this week will be of interest including the RBNZ in New Zealand, Norges Bank in Norway and the Bank of Japan. All three are likely to keep policy rates on hold. There will also be plenty of attention on the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes to determine their reaction to rising inflation pressures, with a slightly more hawkish voting pattern likely as MPC member Posen could have dropped his call for more quantitative easing (QE). There will also be more clues to RBA policy, with the release of Q4 inflation data tomorrow.

Both the EUR and GBP have benefitted from a widening in interest rate futures differentials. In contrast USD sentiment has clearly deteriorated over recent weeks as highlighted in the shift in IMM positioning, with net short positions increasing sharply. It is difficult to see this trend reversing over the short-term, especially as the Fed will likely maintain its dovish stance at its FOMC meeting this week. This suggests that the USD will remain on the back foot.

Temporary Euro Relief

Eurozone peripheral country travails continue to garner most market attention. There was at least a semblance of improvement on this front as peripheral bond spreads with German bunds narrowed on Tuesday but this was largely due to European Central Bank (ECB) bond buying than any improvement in sentiment. The fact that German bund yields also rose helped to narrow bund-peripheral spreads further.

A clearer test of sentiment will be today’s debt sales by Portugal followed by actions by Spain and Italy tomorrow. ECB buying of Portuguese bonds has given some relief to other debt, with Spanish and Italian debt spreads narrowing too. Even Greece managed to sell short term debt (EUR 1.95 bn of 26 week T-bills) but at a higher cost than the previous sale.

Perhaps a stronger boost to sentiment will come from the news that European Union (EU) governments are discussing an increase in the EUR 440 billion bailout fund in recognition of the fact that the fund may prove too small to cope if the crisis spreads to Spain. However, don’t expect a decision anytime soon, with next week’s meeting of EU finance ministers unlikely to agree to such a move. Support (or lack) of from Germany may prove to be a sticking point against the background of domestic political pressure.

Other options being considered include the possibility of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility) purchasing bonds in the secondary market and lowering interest rates on EFSF bailout loans. News that Japan will buy 20% of EFSF bonds this month as well as recent supportive comments from China suggest that an increase in the size of the EFSF may be easily funded by such investors. The EUR will gain some support against the background of such speculation but its upside may be restrained around its 200-day moving average at EUR/USD 1.3071.

In the US the economic news was not so positive for a change as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) small business optimism survey came in weaker than expected in December, an outcome that will come as a blow given that it suggests some stuttering in the recovery process as well as hiring.

There is only secondary data scheduled today, with most attention on the Fed’s Beige Book later tonight. The survey of Federal Reserve districts will likely reveal a broad based but moderate improvement in economic conditions with the exception of housing activity. A speech by the Fed’s Fisher on Monetary policy will also be in focus. Like the Fed’s Plosser overnight he may highlight some caution about the impact of Fed quantitative easing (QE).

The AUD is increasingly feeling the impact of the flooding in Queensland Australia as the extent of economic damage is revealed. Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) board member McKibbin estimated that it could knock off at least 1% from economic growth. This may prove too negative and although the flooding will result in a significantly negative impact on growth in Q1 rebuilding and reconstruction will mean that overall growth for 2011 will not be as significantly impacted. Nonetheless, a paring back in RBA policy tightening expectations will see the AUD come under further pressure, with a move down to around AUD/USD 0.9634 on the cards over the short-term.

Risk on mood prevails

The end of the year looks as though it will finish in a firmly risk on mood. Equity volatility in the form of the VIX index at its lowest since July 2007. FX volatility remains relatively low. A lack of market participants and thinning volumes may explain this but perhaps after a tumultuous year, there is a certain degree of lethargy into year end.

Whether 2011 kicks off in similar mood is debatable given the many and varied worries remaining unresolved, not the least of which is the peripheral sovereign debt concerns in the eurozone. It is no surprise that the one currency still under pressure is the EUR and even talk that China offered to buy Portuguese sovereign bonds has done little to arrest its decline.

Reports of officials bids may give some support to EUR/USD just below 1.31 but the various downgrades to ratings and outlooks from ratings agencies over the past week has soured sentiment for the currency. The latest move came from Fitch ratings agency which placed Greece’s major banks on negative ratings watch following the move to place the country’s ratings on review for a possible downgrade.

The USD proved resilient to weaker than forecast data including a smaller than forecast 5.6% gain in existing home sales in November. The FHFA house price index recorded a surprise gain of 0.7% in October, which mitigated some of the damage. The revised estimate of US Q3 GDP revealed a smaller than expected revision higher to 2.6% QoQ annualized from a previous reading of 2.5%. Moreover, the core PCE was very soft at 0.5% QoQ, supporting the view that the Fed has plenty of room to keep policy very accommodative.

Despite the soft core PCE reading Philadelphia Fed President Plosser who will vote on the FOMC next year indicated that if the economy continues to strengthen he will look for the Fed to cut back on completing the $600 billion quantitative easing (QE) program. Although the tax deal passed by Congress will likely reduce the need for QE3, persistently high unemployment and soft core inflation will likely see the full $600 billion program completed. Today marks the heaviest day for US data this week, with attention turning to November durable goods orders, personal income and spending, jobless claims, final reading of Michigan confidence and November new home sales.

Overall the busy US data slate will likely maintain an encouraging pattern, with healthy gains in income and spending, a rebound in new home sales and the final reading of Michigan confidence likely to hold its gains in December. Meanwhile jobless claims are forecast to match the 420k reading last week, which should see the 4-week average around the 425k mark. This will be around the lowest since August 2008, signifying ongoing improvement in payrolls. The data should maintain the upward pressure on US bond yields, which in turn will keep the USD supported.

Please note that this will be the last post on Econometer.org this year. Seasons greatings and best wishes for the new year to all Econometer readers.

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