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.

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Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

EU Deal Boosts Euro But Momentum To Fade

The European Union deal for Greece was clearly on the positive side of expectations and from that perspective helped to buoy sentiment for European assets. The fact that EU leaders managed to work over differences and emerge with a solid deal will help remove some of the uncertainty about Greece’s future and lower the risks of contagion.

To recap EU leaders announced a EUR 109 billion second aid package for Greece. Private bondholders will contribute a target of a further EUR 37 billion via bond swaps or rolling over existing debt for new bonds maturing in 30 years. Investors will have the option to exchange existing debt into four instruments. The aim is to obtain 90% participation from Greek bondholders.

Moreover, it appears that governments will guarantee any defaulted Greek debt offered as collateral until the country can return to the market. Effectively this means that even if ratings agencies declare a default rating on Greek debt, Greek banks may still be able to obtain funding from the European Central Bank (ECB) as the debt is guaranteed by national governments.

Greece, Portugal and Ireland will benefit from lower interest rates on loans and longer maturities. Moreover, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund will have a wider scope for bond buying directly from investors. This lets the ECB off the hook to avoid further use of its own bond purchase programme and removes any further impairing of its balance sheet. The idea of a tax on banks was removed, as criticism of the workability of such a plan increased.

The downside of the deal includes the fact that:
1) European tax payers are on the line for a potentially unlimited amount to guarantee defaulted Greek debt,
2) The bondholder programme is only limited to Greece, so there is no contingency should something similar be needed in other countries
3) The participation rate for private bondholders is yet to be known (but will most likely be high).
3) The deal will lead to a default on Greek debt given the programme amounts to a 21% drop in value but a credit event is unlikely to be triggered.
4) Greece still has a highly ambitious privatisation and austerity plan to implement which even some Greek officials have admitted is overly optimistic and at worst could turn into a fire sale of Greek assets.
5) EFSF bond purchases will need the “mutual agreement” of member states which is by no means guaranteed.
6) The fund size is not large enough should Italy and Spain need similar bailouts especially as leaders have stressed that the Greek package will not be replicated for other countries.

The EUR rallied on the outcome of the European talks. However, the EUR has plenty of other worries to deal with including divergence in growth across the eurozone, overly long EUR market positioning, EUR overvaluation, likely growth underperformance versus the US and a likely rebound in general for the USD over coming months especially if the Fed does not embark on QE3 and agrees a deal to raise the debt ceiling. EUR/USD is likely to remain supported in the near term, with near term resistance around 1.4467. I still suspect that the momentum will not last, with EUR/USD looking particularly rich at current levels.

US Dollar On The Rise

There are plenty of US releases on tap this week but perhaps the most important for the USD will be the minutes of the April 26-27 Fed FOMC meeting. Taken together with speeches by Fed officials including Bernanke, FX markets will attempt to gauge clues to Fed policy post the end of QE2. The Fed’s stance at this point will be the major determinant of whether the USD can sustain its rally over the medium term. The lack of back up in US bond yields suggests that USD momentum could slow, with markets likely to move into wide ranges over coming weeks.

It is worth considering which currencies will suffer more in the event that the USD extends its gains. The correlation between the USD index and EUR/USD is extremely strong (even accounting for the fact that the EUR is a large part of the USD index) suggesting that the USDs gains are largely a result of the EUR’s woes. Aside from the EUR, GBP, AUD and CAD are the most sensitive major currencies to USD strength whilst many emerging market currencies including ZAR, TRY, SGD, KRW, THB, IDR, BRL and MXN, are all highly susceptible to the impact of a stronger USD.

Robust Q1 GDP growth readings in both Germany and France helped to spur gains in the EUR but this proved short-lived. Sentiment for the currency has soured and as reflected in the CFTC IMM data long positions are being scaled back. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of scope for more EUR selling given ongoing worries about the eurozone periphery, which are finally taking their toll on the EUR. A break below EUR/USD 1.4021 would open the door for a test of 1.3980.

The eurogroup and ecofin meetings will be of interest to markets this week but any additional support for Greece is unlikely to be announced at this time. However, likely approval of Portugal’s bailout may alleviate some pressure on the EUR but any positive impetus will be limited. Even on the data front, markets will not be impressed with the German ZEW index of investor confidence likely to register a further decline in May.

Japanese officials have been shying away from further FX intervention by blaming the drop in USD/JPY over recent weeks on general USD weakness despite the move towards 80. However, this view is not really backed up by correlation analysis which shows that there is only a very low sensitivity of USD/JPY to general USD moves over recent months. One explanation for the strength of the JPY is strong flows of portfolio capital into Japan, with both bond and equity markets registering net inflows over the past four straight weeks.

This is not the only explanation, however. One of the main JPY drivers has been a narrowing in yield differentials. This is unlikely to persist with yield differentials set to widen sharply over coming months resulting in a sharply higher USD/JPY. As usual data releases are unlikely to have a big impact on the JPY this week but if anything, a further decline in consumer confidence, and a negative reading for Q1 GDP, will maintain the pressure for a weaker JPY and more aggressive Bank of Japan (BoJ) action although the BoJ is unlikely to shift policy this week.

Australian Dollar Looking Stretched

Central bank decisions in Japan, Europe and UK will dictate FX market direction today. No surprises are expected by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) and Bank of England (BoE) leaving the European Central Bank (ECB) decision and press conference to provide the main market impetus. Although a hawkish message from ECB President Trichet is likely the market has already priced in a total of 75 basis points of tightening this year. We retain some caution about whether the EUR will be able to make further headway following the ECB meeting unless the central bank is even more hawkish than already priced in.

EUR/USD easily breached the 1.4250 resistance level and will now eye resistance around 1.4500. News that Portugal formally requested European Union (EU) aid came as no surprise whilst strong German factory orders provided further support to the EUR. The data highlights upside risks to today’s February German industrial production data. The EUR will find further support versus the USD from comments by Atlanta Fed’s Lockhart who noted that he doesn’t expect the Fed to hike interest rates by year end.

USD/JPY is now around 7.5% higher than its post earthquake lows. Japanese authorities will undoubtedly see a measure of success from their joint FX intervention. To a large degree they have been helped by a shift in relative bond yields (2-year US / Japan yield differentials have widened by close to 30 basis points since mid March, and are finally having some impact on USD/JPY as reflected in the strengthening in short-term correlations. Whilst the BoJ is unlikely to alter its policy settings today the fact that it is providing plenty of liquidity to money markets, having injected around JPY 23 trillion or about 5% of nominal GDP since the earthquake, is likely playing a role in dampening JPY demand.

AUD/USD has appreciated by close to 6% since mid March and whilst I would not recommend selling as yet I would be cautious about adding to long positions. My quantitative model based on interest rate / yield differentials, commodity prices and risk aversion reveals a major divergence between AUD/USD and its regression estimate. Clearly the AUD has benefitted from diversification flows as Asian central banks intervene and recycle intervention USDs. However, at current levels I question the value of such diversification into AUD.

Speculative AUD/USD positioning as indicated by the CFTC IMM data reveals that net long positions are verging on all time highs, suggesting plenty of scope for profit taking / position squaring in the event of a turn in sentiment. Moreover, AUD gains do not match the performance of economic data, which have been coming in worse than expected over recent weeks. Consequently the risks of a correction have increased.

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