High degree of investor caution

Although risk aversion has declined from recently elevated levels there is still a high degree of caution from investors who are unwilling to take long term bets. The causes of market angst have remained unchanged over recent weeks namely Ukraine tensions, weaker growth in China and US data that has performed below expectations.

It is therefore unsurprising that in the wake of a weaker than forecast reading for Chinese manufacturing confidence yesterday and talk of more sanctions against Russia, European and US equity markets fell overnight and Asian equities have began the day on softer footing.

The Markit US manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) edged lower, but unlike the Chinese PMI, which remained below the 50 boom/bust level, the US reading was healthy at 55.5 in March. The Eurozone equivalent edged lower but continued to show that recovery was still in shape, with the March reading at 53.

The reverberations from Fed Chairman Yellen’s comments last week also inflicting some damage, with gold prices in particular succumbing to pressure and verging on a test of the 200 day moving average around 1296.83. A heavy slate of data today includes the German March IFO survey, UK CPI inflation, US March consumer confidence and February new home sales.

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Risk assets to slip ahead of ECB and US payrolls

Although Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke did not categorically state that a third round of quantitative easing or QE3 is on the cards his stoic defence of past QE while playing down of the risks emanating from such actions, highlight that the prospects are more likely than not for more Fed balance sheet expansion.

Markets clearly liked what they heard, with risk assets finishing off the week on a positive note. Notably commodities continue to outperform and the prospects of more currency debasing by the Fed and European Central Bank suggest that gold in particular, will continue to look attractive. However, the weaker than expected Chinese manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) in August, with the index dropping below the 50 boom/bust level, will put a dampener on markets.

The main impediment to QE3 would be a major improvement in job market conditions and in this respect markets will have the August jobs report to digest at the end of this week. Preliminary estimates of an 125k increase in payrolls and an unemployment rate stuck at 8.3% suggests that it should be no hindrance to more QE.

The other key event of the week is the European Central Bank meeting although markets will eye events in Greece ahead of this, with the Troika set to revisit the country mid week. The ECB continues to play its game of brinkmanship with governments, and while they Bank will likely commit to a bond buying programme it is unlikely to announce the onset of a new round of bond purchases until governments in particular Spain formally request aid from the EFSF / ESM bailout funds. Although there is some scope for disappointment expectations of major ECB action have already been pared back.

Other central banks in the frame include the Reserve Bank of Australia and Bank of Canada but unlike the ECB policy easing is unlikely from either of these central banks. Overall, risk assets to trade with a heavy tone and the USD will recoup some of its losses over coming days, especially against the EUR.

USD finding support, AUD slipping

US bond yields look relatively well supported and in turn this is providing a degree of support for the USD. In this respect the firmer than consensus reading in a gauge of service sector activity, the February US ISM non-manufacturing survey (57.3 versus 56.8 in January) which contrasted with relatively weak service sector purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) in Europe, helped to maintain the healthy yield differential between the US and German bunds.

Combined with the generally ‘risk off’ sentiment pervading markets, in part due to the weaker PMI data, the USD looks to be in good form early in the week. The next market mover will be Wednesday’s ADP jobs report (a measure of jobs growth in the services sector), which will provide clues to Friday’s February non-farm payrolls outcome. In the meantime the fact that the speculative market (IMM) is positioned short USD (for the first time since September 2011) suggests that the room for further USD selling looks limited, with the USD index looking well supported above 79.00.

AUD and other high beta currencies lost more ground in the wake of the drop in the Chinese non-manufacturing PMI in February. AUD remains highly reactive to Chinese data releases given the high and growing exposure of Australia’s economy to China. Given the likelihood of a soft landing in China this year, the medium term damage to the AUD will be limited and I stil look for AUD/USD to reach 1.10 by year-end.

Over the near term however, there is scope for more AUD downside but much will depend on the outcome of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) policy meeting. Expectations of rate cuts have diminished following recently better data and a less dovish statement at the last RBA meeting. A relatively benign statement will offer the AUD little support, leaving AUD exposed to a drop to technical support to just under 1.06 versus the USD.

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Speculators still short Euro

Since I wrote “Beware of EUR short covering” EUR/USD has gained around 4%. EUR/USD is trying to gain a foothold above 1.3200 but failed overnight. Further gains will be more gradual. Helping the EUR is the fact that short positions hit an all time high according to IMM data for last week. However, data releases are unlikely to provide much impetus to the EUR, with most attention on the monthly series of PMI manufacturing confidence indices as consumer confidence readings.

At best the data will show some stabilisation but market will focus instead on the EU Summit beginning today and ongoing Greek debt talks as well as Italian debt auctions today. Greek debt talks are expected to be finalised this week including writedowns of around 70% but tensions over a German proposal to create a “budget commissioner” could yet hit the EUR.

The major release of the week in the UK is the January PMI manufacturing survey although there will also be attention on housing data including mortgage approvals and house price surveys from the Nationwide and Halifax. Overall the data will do little to dispel fears about the UK economy following the contraction in Q4 GDP revealed last week.

GBP will likely remain resilient to any bad economic news however, but its gains look limited especially given the revelation in the BoE MPC minutes that some members thought that more quantitative easing will be required. Having strengthened against the USD but weakened against the EUR over recent days, GBP continues to trade in a middle of the road manner. GBP/USD sellers will likely emerge around the 1.5870 resistance level while EUR/GBP is set to consolidate around 0.8350.

Greece throws a spanner in the works

Having already retraced around 50% of its losses from its high around 4 April to its low on 27 October the USD index is on a firm footing and looks set to extend gains. The USD is benefitting both from the EUR’s woes and receding expectations of more US quantitative easing in the wake of less negative US data releases.

Whether the USD is able to build on its gains will depend on the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting, accompanying statement and press conference today. While there have been some noises from Fed officials about the prospects of more QE, the Fed is likely to keep policy settings unchanged, leaving the USD on the front foot.

Greece has thrown a spanner in the works by calling a national referendum on the European deal. The fact that this referendum may not take place until January will bring about a prolonged period of uncertainty and further downside risks for the EUR against the USD and on the crosses. As a result of the increased uncertainty from the referendum, growing doubts about various aspects of last week’s agreement as well as hesitation from emerging market investors to buy into any European investment vehicle, peripheral bond spreads blew out further, and the EUR dropped.

The immediate focus will be on emergency talks today between European leaders in Cannes where Greek Prime Minister Papandreou has been summoned at a time when his grip on power appears to be slipping ahead of a government confidence vote on Friday. EUR/USD looks set to slip to support around 1.3525.

The Swiss National Bank’s floor under EUR/CHF has held up well since it was implemented in early September. How well it can be sustained going forward is questionable especially given that risk aversion is intensifying once again. A weaker than forecast reading for the Swiss October manufacturing PMI yesterday falling further below the 50 boom / bust reading to 46.9 highlights the growing economic risks and consequent pressure to prevent the CHF from strengthening further. However, now that Japan has shown its teeth in the form of FX intervention the CHF may find itself once again as the target of safe haven flows.

Technical indicators revealed that GBP was overbought and its correction lower was well overdue. However, GBP looks in better shape than the EUR even in the wake of some mixed UK data yesterday. On a positive note, UK Q3 GDP surprised on the upside in line with our expectations coming in at 0.5% QoQ. However, the forward looking PMI manufacturing index dropped more than expected in October, down to 47.4 suggesting that UK economic momentum is waning quickly.

EUR/GBP looks set to test its 12 September low around 0.8259 but GBP/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back against a resurgent USD. Overall, GBP’s resilience despite the implementation of more quantitative easing by the Bank of England has been impressive and I expect it to continue to benefit from its semi safe haven status

Awaiting US jobs data

The USD continues to languish as market hopes/expectations of further US Federal Reserve stimulus including possibly more quantitative easing or QE3 weigh on the currency. There may also be some hesitation to buy USDs ahead of tomorrow’s August jobs report. The omens from the US ADP jobs data yesterday were not particularly positive, with a below consensus 91k private jobs reported.

As the Fed FOMC minutes earlier this week highlighted there are a few in the FOMC who are prepared to take more aggressive action which would equate to an even weaker USD. Ahead of the jobs data today’s August ISM manufacturing survey will offer some direction for markets but if our forecast of a sub 50 outcome proves correct it will only play into expectations of more Fed stimulus leaving the USD on the back foot.

EUR/USD struggled to sustain any move above 1.45 this week but has continued to withstand various peripheral bond concerns without too much difficulty, an ability it has managed to maintain for the past several months. Although it has pulled back EUR/USD may struggle to sustain a drop below its 100-day moving average at 1.4362.

Although there have been various fresh worries over recent days such as the collateral issues between Greece and Finland as well as well as questions about German demands for Greece’s bailout, the EUR is likely to remain unperturbed. Whether the EUR will be able to withstand growing evidence of slowing growth in the eurozone is another question altogether, especially as it is leading to a reassessment of European Central Bank (ECB) policy expectations, something that will likely be confirmed at next week’s ECB meeting.

GBP has had problems of its own to deal with and has failed to capitalise on any USD tone while losing ground against the EUR. Data yesterday did not help, with consumer sentiment falling for a third straight month according to the GfK confidence index. It appears that speculation of further Fed monetary stimulus may also be rubbing off on GBP, with potential for more UK QE likely to act as a weight on the currency.

Bank of England MPC member Posen added fuel to the fire in comments that he made supporting the need for central banks to undertake more QE. GBP looks destined for more weakness in the short term, with support around GBP/USD likely 1.6111 likely to be tested. A below 50 reading for the August manufacturing PMI today, will only add to downside pressure.

US Dollar Ugly But Not Hideous

The USD has strengthened by around 5% since the beginning of the month. The move has been particularly sharp this week as higher risk aversion and intensifying fears about the eurozone periphery have given the currency a boost, albeit with the USD remaining one of the least ugly currencies amongst a fairly hideous bunch.

Eurozone country and overall ‘flash’ May purchasing managers indices (PMI) managed to further sour an already fragile mood yesterday, with the data revealing bigger than expected declines, albeit still at levels that are high in absolute terms. Data today is unlikely to result in any improvement in sentiment for eurozone assets, with the Germany IFO Business Climate index likely to slip, albeit from a relatively high level.

The EUR doesn’t need much of an excuse to sell off at present, with a softer IFO likely to provide further reason for investors to offload long positions in the currency. Against this background EUR/USD is likely to sustain a drop below the 1.4000 level, with the 100 day moving average level of 1.3972 likely to be breached shortly.

More importantly in terms of sentiment drivers the malaise in the eurozone periphery especially Greece remains the biggest risk for the EUR. As much as officials in Europe and Greece deny speculation of debt restructuring the market is far from convinced as reflected in the widening in peripheral debt spreads.

Greece’s Prime Minister Papandreou’s attempt to push through austerity measures in the Greek parliament yesterday by announcing accelerated asset sale plan and EUR 6 billion in budget cuts have done little to turn market sentiment despite the fact that at the least it shows a willingness to stick to the plan in the face of growing domestic resistance.

The USD has also edged higher against the JPY over recent days despite a rise in risk aversion. As revealed in the latest IMM data markets have been net long JPY over the past couple of weeks, with positioning well above the 3-month average, suggesting some scope for a liquidation of long positions. Nonetheless, the rise in USD/JPY has occurred despite 2-year US / Japan yield differentials remaining at a relatively low level suggesting that the USD may lose momentum, with USD/JPY resistance around 82.74 likely to cap gains.

GBP has also slid suffering in the wake of a resurgent USD and unconfirmed reports that Moody’s ratings agency is expected to announce that is placing 14 out of 18 UK banks on review for a downgrade. GBP is likely to trade nervously ahead of UK data releases today including public finances and CBI data, with further downside risks opening up. A drop below GBP/USD 1.6000 could see the currency pair test support around 1.5972.

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