Shaky start to the year for equities

Equity markets and risk assets in general are having a decidedly shaky start to the year. Following a 30% increase in the US S&P 500 last year markets are finally looking at whether earnings expectations and economic growth will justify further gains in equities.

Worries ahead of Q4 earnings releases and perhaps concerns about the economy in the wake of the disappointing US December jobs report weighed on US equities overnight. These concerns also fuelled a further drop in US Treasury yields and undermined the USD. In contrast gold prices were buoyed.

The sharp drop in Treasury yields over recent days highlights both the previous extent of bearishness in bonds but also some hope / expectation that the Fed may slow the pace of tapering in the wake of the jobs data. This seems unlikely however, and as indicated by the Fed’s Lockhart overnight the data is highly unlikely to alter Fed policy.

Q4 earnings releases from JP Morgan and Wells Fargo as well as speeches by Dallas Fed President Fisher and Philly Fed President Plosser will be in focus today to provide further direction to markets. On the data front US December retail sales is the main release of note for which a drop in headline sales will be more than compensated by a gain in sales ex autos.

Overall a cautious tone is likely to continue until further clarity on the earnings outlook is revealed but economic data at least should look more encouraging over coming days. Clearly lower US Treasury yields are weighing on the USD but this is likely to prove to be a correction rather than a sustained USD decline.

It is interesting that the EUR has not managed to capitalize on the weakness in the USD. Lingering expectations that the European Central Bank may need to become more aggressive in terms of policy in the wake of soft inflation could be restraining the EUR. A solid reading for November Eurozone industrial production expected to be revealed today is unlikely to help the currency.

GBP was a major loser overnight although there does not seem to be much of a fundamental reason to sell the currency aside from soft November industrial production data released at the end of last week. Perhaps some profit taking on long GBP positioning may be attributable for the drop in the currency but the CFTC IMM data shows that speculative positioning was not overly long. Inflation data today will provide further direction, with GBP likely to remain under short term pressure.


JPY retracement, AUD restrained

Equity markets looked more restrained overnight as the sharp rally so far this year stalled ahead of the US Q4 earnings season which kicks off with Alcoa earnings after the close today. The looming budget battle in the US has also prompted some hesitancy to buy risk assets.

Direction will remain limited given the notable absence of first tier data releases today, with only Eurozone economic sentiment gauges, German factory orders, US small business confidence and consumer credit on tap. The bulk of releases are due in the later part of the week including rate decisions from the ECB and BoE.

For a currency that spent most of last year trapped in a relatively tight the JPY has lost an incredible amount of ground (12.7%) versus USD since the beginning of October 2012. The historically strong relationship between bond yield differentials and USD/JPY has broken down (albeit temporarily in my view), and cannot be used to explain the jump in USD/JPY.

Expectations of more aggressive monetary policy action have pushed USD/JPY higher especially as Prime Minister Abe continues to highlight his desire for a 2% inflation target. Nonetheless, as wires report today there may be no deadline for achieving this target a factor which may help USD/JPY to push lower in the short term. USD/JPY is likely to find some support around 86.54 (Jan 2 low). Speculative positioning in JPY has become increasingly short but notably is a long way from the all time low, suggesting scope remains for an eventual increase in JPY shorts.

AUD/USD has made an impressive recovery from its lows around 1.0344 at the end of last year. Risk appetite and the USD index both register a limited and insignificant correlation with AUD/USD suggesting that the currency will not be influenced by either over coming weeks. Yield differentials however, remain important and the widening of Australia 2 year yield differentials with Treasuries has provided important support for AUD.

Further upside in the currency will require Australian yields to move higher and this may in turn depend on the outcome of November retail sales data tomorrow but 2 year yields have hit trend line resistance suggesting that the AUD will struggle to move higher from current levels. AUD/USD 1.0585 will offer strong resistance, while my quantitative model suggests AUD/USD short term fair value around 1.0557.

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.

Data and earnings focus

Friday’s round of US data were generally upbeat, highlighting that consumer spending is coming back to life. Inflation pressures however, remain benign at least on the core reading highlighting the Fed’s concern that inflation is running below the level consistent with its mandate. In other words it will be a long time, probably late into 2012 before policy rates increase.

While the Fed is no hurry to raise rates despite a few hawkish rumblings within the FOMC the European Central Bank (ECB) in contrast appears to have become more eager to pull the trigger for higher rates. ECB President Trichet’s hawkish press conference last week set the cat amongst the pigeons and marked a clear shift in ECB rhetoric towards a more hawkish stance.

A very big problem for the ECB is that the eurozone economy is not performing along the lines that its hawkish rhetoric would suggest, especially in the periphery. Growth momentum in the core in contrast, as likely reflected in the January ZEW investor confidence and IFO business confidence survey data this week in Germany, remains positive. Both surveys are likely to stabilize at healthy levels but how long can the likes of Germany drag along the eurozone periphery?

There will be relatively more attention on the meeting of Eurogroup/Ecofin officials, with focus on issues such as enlarging the size of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund and development of a “comprehensive plan” to contain the eurozone crisis. Don’t look for any conclusive agreements as this may have to wait until the European Union (EU) Council meeting on 4 February assuming (optimistically given ongoing German resistance) some agreement can even be reached.

Following the success (albeit at relatively high yields) of the eurozone debt auctions last week, sentiment for peripheral debt will face further tests this week in the form of debt sales in Spain, Belgium and Portugal.

The US Martin Luther King Jr. holiday will result in a quiet start to the week for markets but there will be plenty to chew on. This week’s key earnings reports include several banks scheduled to release Q4 earnings. Financials are a leading sector in the rally in equities at present and these earnings will be critical to determine whether the rally has legs.

The US data slate includes January manufacturing surveys in the form of the Empire and Philly Fed, both of which are likely to post healthy gains whilst existing home sales are also likely to rise. This will not change the generally weak picture of the US housing market, with high inventories and elevated foreclosures characterizing conditions. As if to prove this, housing starts are set to drop in December. On the rates front, the Bank of Canada is likely to keep its policy rates on hold this week.

After coming under pressure last week much for the USD will depend on the eurozone’s travails to determine further direction. Concrete evidence of progress at the Ecofin may bolster the EUR further, with resistance seen around 1.3500 but don’t bank on it. The ability of eurozone officials to let down often lofty expectations should not be ignored. In any case following sharp gains last week progress over coming days for the EUR will be harder to achieve.

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