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.

Follow The Oracle

Many investors are probably wishing they had the psychic abilities of Paul the octopus. The mollusc once again gave the correct prediction, by picking Spain to beat the Netherlands to become the winner of the World Cup. This ability would have been particularly useful for currency forecasters, many of which have been wrong footed by the move higher in EUR/USD over recent weeks.

Confidence appeared to return to markets over the past week helped by a string of rate hikes in Asia from India, South Korea and Malaysia, and firm data including yet another consensus beating jobs report in Australia. An upward revision to global growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also helped, with the net result being an easing in double-dip growth concerns.

The good news culminated in a much stronger than forecast June trade surplus in China. However, China’s trade numbers will likely keep the pressure on for further CNY appreciation, and notably US Senators are still pushing ahead with legislation on China’s FX policy despite the US Treasury decision not to name China as a currency manipulator.

Political uncertainty on the rise again in Japan following the loss of control of the upper house of parliament by the ruling DPJ party. The JPY has taken a softer tone following the election and will likely remain under pressure. CFTC IMM speculative JPY positioning has increased but this has been met with significant selling interest by Japanese margin accounts who hold their biggest net long USD/JPY position since October 2009 according to Tokyo Financial Exchange (TFX) data.

In the absence of the prodigious abilities of an “oracle octopus” data and events this week will continue to show slowing momentum in G3 country growth indicators but not enough to warrant renewed double-dip concerns. Direction will be largely driven by US Q2 earnings. S&P 500 company earnings are expected to have increased 27% from a year ago according to Thomson Reuters.

There are several data releases of interest in the US this week but the main release is the retail sales report for June which is likely to record another drop over the month. Data and events in Europe include the Eurogroup finance ministers meeting, with markets looking for further insight into bank stress tests across the region. Early indications are positive but the scope of the tests remains the main concern. The July German ZEW survey will garner some interest and is likely to show a further slight decline in economic sentiment.

EUR/USD gains looked increasingly stretched towards the end of last week, as it slipped back from a high of around 1.2722. Technical resistance around 1.2740 will prove to be tough level to crack over coming days, with a pullback to support around 1.2479 more likely. CFTC IMM data reveals that short covering in EUR has been particularly sharp in the last week, with net short positions cut by over half, highlighting that the scope for further short covering is becoming more limited.

Conversely aggregate net USD long positions have fallen by over half in the last week as USD sentiment has soured, with longs at close to a three-month low. The scope for a further reduction in USD positioning is less significant, suggesting that selling pressure may abate.

Risk trades under pressure

Having given presentations in Hong Kong, China and South Korea in the past week and preparing to do the same in Taiwan and Singapore this week it is clear that there is a lot of uncertainty and caution in the air.  

There can be no doubt now that risk aversion has forcibly made its way back into the markets psyche.  Government bonds, the US dollar and the Japanese yen have gained more ground against the background of higher risk aversion. 

Following a tough week in which global equity markets slumped, oil fell below $60 per barrel and risk currencies including many emerging market currencies weakened, the immediate outlook does not look particularly promising.

Data releases are not giving much for markets to be inspired about despite upgrades to economic growth forecasts by the IMF even if their outlook remains cautious.  US trade data revealed a bigger than expected narrowing in the deficit in May whilst US consumer confidence fell more than expected in July as rising unemployment took its toll on sentiment.   There was also some disappointment towards the end of the week as the Bank of England did not announce an increase in its asset purchase facility despite much speculation that it would do so.

Rising risk aversion is manifesting itself in the usual manner in currency markets.  The Japanese yen is grinding higher and having failed to weaken when risk appetite was improving it is exhibiting an asymmetric reaction to risk by strengthening when risk appetite is declining.  Its positive reaction to higher risk aversion should come as no surprise as it has been the most sensitive and positively correlated currency with risk aversion since the crisis began. 

Nonetheless, the Japanese authorities will likely step up their rhetoric attempting to direct the yen lower before it inflicts too much damage on recovery prospects.   The urgency to do so was made clear from another drop in domestic machinery orders last week as well as the poor performance of Japanese equities.  

The US dollar is also benefitting from higher risk aversion and is likely to continue to grind higher in the current environment.  Risk currencies such as the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars, will be most vulnerable to a further sell off but will probably lose most ground against the yen over the coming days.   These currencies are facing a double whammy of pressure from both higher risk aversion and a sharp drop in commodity prices.    Sterling and the euro look less vulnerable but will remain under pressure too.   

There are some data releases that could provide direction this week in the US such as retail sales, housing starts, Empire and Philly Fed manufacturing surveys.  In addition there is an interest rate decision in Japan, and inflation data in various countries. The main direction for currencies will come from equity markets and Q2 earnings reports, however.  

So far the rise in risk aversion has not prompted big breaks out of recent ranges in FX markets.  However, unless earnings reports and perhaps more importantly guidance for the months ahead are very upbeat, there is likely to be more downside for risk currencies against the dollar but in particular against yen crosses where most of the FX action is set to take place.

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