US dollar soft ahead of retail sales

The USD has lost a fair bit of ground in February failing to benefit from a renewed rise in US Treasury yields. A more positive risk environment recently has undermined some of the demand for USDs while some negative data surprises such as the ISM manufacturing survey and non farm payrolls have also weighed on demand for the USD.

The release of January retail sales data today will give another opportunity to gauge the path of consumption at the turn of the year but unfortunately for the USD a relatively flat outcome for sales will provide little rationale to buy the currency. The consensus expectation is for headline retail sales to post a 0% monthly reading, while sales ex autis is likely to rise by a measly 0.1%.

In the near term this implies little potential for a USD rebound but over but over coming weeks I expect the USD to rally in line with higher US yields. USD index (DXY) is likely to flatline around the 80 level in the coming sessions before rallying over coming weeks.

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Risk rally losing steam

The rally in risk assets is losing its momentum, with US stock markets failing to extend gains following a four day rally while US Treasury yields continued their ascent in the wake of Fed Chairman Yellen’s testimony highlighting no deviation from tapering. Her testimony to the Senate will be delayed today while US data in the form of retail sales is likely to register a soft outcome. Sentiment was boosted overnight by strong Chinese trade data in January and the approval by the US Congress allowing a suspension of the debt limit, a far cry from the major saga that took place last time the debt ceiling was about to be breached.

Additionally Eurozone markets will find some support from comments by European Central Bank board member Coeure who noted that the central banks is “very seriously” considering negative deposit rates. His view may be supported by the release of the ECB monthly bulletin today and Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF). Coeure’s comments undermined the EUR however, while in contrast sharp upward revisions to growth forecasts by the Bank of England in its Quarterly Inflation Report boosted GBP. Suffice to say, EUR/GBP dropped like a stone and looks set to remain under downward pressure.

Risk appetite firms

More encouraging news in the US in the form of a bigger than forecast increase in September retail sales and stronger than expected earnings from Citigroup Inc. helped to boost equity markets and risk assets in general. The US data follows on from recent positive consumer confidence and housing data.

Meanwhile, the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropped while the Baltic Dry Index continued its ascent. The latter is particularly encouraging in terms of its positive implications for global growth. This is corroborated by my own risk barometer which continues to move lower. In contrast, commodity prices dropped, with gold prices losing more ground as better US data acts to dampen expectations of the magnitude of Fed QE that will need to be carried out.

I expect the constructive risk tone to be maintained with data releases both in the US (industrial production) and Europe (German ZEW investor confidence) to be supportive of risk assets. A reports in the FT today that Spain is verging on requesting a bailout will also come as welcome news for markets although there has yet to be confirmation of such a request.

Despite the better market tone I do not see major breaks out of recent ranges, with attention on the 84 S&P 500 companies set to release earnings this week and developments at the upcoming EU Council meeting. Hesitation ahead of a slate of Chinese data tomorrow will also cap market movements today.

Firmer risk appetite is usually negative for the USD but it is notable that my risk barometer has had a positive and significant correlation with the USD over recent months. In other words, lower risk aversion has actually been associated with a firmer USD. I see the USD remaining supported especially if expectations of the magnitude of Fed QE are pared back although the USD will likely lose some momentum given growing hopes of an imminent Spanish bailout request.

Asian currencies look relatively firm against the backdrop noted above. The most sensitive Asian currency to risk is the KRW and notably USD/KRW has finally broken below 1110, which opens the door for a test of 1100. TWD, THB, MYR and INR are also major Asian FX beneficiaries in an environment of better risk appetite. I expect Asian currencies to continue to trade with a firmer tone in the short term helped by strengthening capital inflows. Firmer Chinese CNY fixings are also aiding Asian currencies.

The Devil is in the details

The “partial solution” delivered by European Union (EU) leaders last week has failed to match the high hopes ahead of the EU Summit. Nonetheless, the deliverance of a “fiscal compact”, acceleration of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to July 2012 , no forced private sector participation in debt restructuring (outside Greece), and possible boost to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of up to EUR 200 billion, are steps in the right direction. The fact that UK Prime Minister Cameron threw a spanner in the works to veto a joint proposal to revise the EU Treaty should not detract from the progress made.

Nonetheless, the measures may not be sufficient to allay market concerns, with disappointment at the lack of European Central Bank (ECB) action in terms of stepping up to the plate as lender of the last resort still weighing on sentiment. Data will add to the disappointment this week as “flash” Eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMI) drop further in December.

This week events in the US will garner more attention, including the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting, November inflation and retail sales data plus manufacturing confidence gauges as well as November industrial production on tap. The Fed will not shift its policy stance at this meeting but may sound a little more upbeat on the economy following recent firmer data. Inflation will likely remain subdued while the other data will continue to show gradual recovery.

Overall, the market is likely to thin further as the week progresses and holidays approach, with ranges likely to dominate against the background of little directional impetus. Our call to sell risk assets on rallies remains in place, however. The EUR will likely struggle to make much headway in the current environment, especially given that many details of the EU agreement still need to be ironed out and once again the risk to market confidence lies in implementation or lack of it. A range of EUR/USD 1.3260-1.3550 is likely to hold over the short term.

All Eyes On Europe

EUR looks range bound ahead of key events including the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting, European Union Summit and release of bank stress test results. A senior German official poured cold water over expectations of a concrete outcome from the EU Summit, dampening EUR sentiment as a result.

There will be plenty of attention on the ECB to determine whether they will give a little more ground and provide further assistance to the Eurozone periphery. While a refi policy rate cut is highly likely as well as additional liquidity measures I do not expect any move in the direction of more aggressive action to support peripheral bonds in terms of becoming “lender of the last resort’.

If however, the ECB hints at intensifying its securities market purchases of Eurozone bonds this will likely bode well for the EUR. Indeed, reports overnight suggest that the ECB will announce a set of measures to stimulate bank lending including easing collateral requirements for banks.

More weak UK data in the form a bigger than consensus drop in manufacturing and industrial production in October add to the soft BRC retail sales and house price data, in putting pressure on the Bank of England (BoE) to increase its quantitative easing at today’s policy meeting. While the BoE is set to keep policy unchanged it is only a matter of time before additional asset purchases are announced.

Despite the weaker IP data GBP has held up relatively well against the USD although downside risks appear to be intensifying. If I am correct in the view of no change by the BoE today we expect little change in GBP although there could be a risk of a push higher in EUR/GBP if the ECB delivers some positive news, with resistance seen around 0.8665.

The RBNZ unsurprisingly left policy rates unchanged at 2.5%, sounded less hawkish than the previous meeting and also lowered growth forecasts. The NZD was left unmoved by the rate decision and looks well supported at current levels perhaps due to relief that the statement was not more dovish. The kiwi has been an underperformer over the year but unlike the AUD it has not been particularly influenced by gyrations in risk aversion.

Interest rate futures differentials have seen a renewed widening versus the US over recent weeks. This is significant given that the NZ-US interest rate differentials have a very strong correlation with the performance of NZD/USD. If this widening is sustained it will point to upside potential for the Kiwi.

Data releases in focus

For a change the markets may actually concentrate on data releases today rather than political events in the eurozone. The October US retail sales report and November Empire manufacturing survey are likely to paint a less negative economic picture of the US. The data will help to dampen expectations of more quantitative easing in the US but we will be able to hear more on the subject from the Fed’s Bullard and Williams in speeches today.

Overnight the Fed’s Fisher poured more cold water on the prospects of further QE by highlighting that the economy is “poised for growth”. While speculative data in the form of the CTFC IMM data shows a drop in USD sentiment to its lowest in several weeks we do not expect this to persist. The USD will likely benefit from the data today and we see the currency retaining a firmer tone over the short term especially as eurozone concerns creep back in.

The vote by German Chancellor Merkel’s party to approve a measure for a troubled country to leave the EUR opens up a can of worms and will hit EUR sentiment. But rather than politics there are several data releases on tap today that will provide some short term influence on the EUR, including Q3 GDP and the November German ZEW survey. FX markets will likely ignore a positive reading for GDP given that the outlook for Q4 is going to be much worse. The forward looking ZEW survey will record a further drop highlighting the risks to Europe’s biggest economy.

T-bill auctions in Spain and Greece may garner even more attention. Following on from yesterday’s Italian debt sale in which the yield on 5-year bond came in higher than the previous auction but with a stronger bid/cover ratio, markets will look for some encouragement from today’s auctions. Even if the auctions go well, on balance, relatively downbeat data releases will play negatively for the EUR.

When viewing the EUR against what is implied by interest rate differentials it is very evident that the currency is much stronger than it should be at least on this measure. Both short term (interest rate futures) and long term (2 year bond) yield differentials between the eurozone and the US reveal that EUR/USD is destined for a fall.

Europe’s yield advantage has narrowed sharply over recent months yet the EUR has not weakened. Some of this has been due to underlying demand for European portfolio assets and official buying of EUR from central banks but the reality is that the EUR is looking increasingly susceptible to a fall. EUR/USD is poised for a drop below the psychologically important level of 1.35, with support seen around 1.3484 (10 November low).

Plenty of event risk

This week is heavy with event risk, with a lot expected from EU leaders. So far the risk on tone to markets has held up, with for example the VIX fear gauge resting below the key 30.0. The G20 meeting over the weekend set the deadline for action for concrete solutions to the eurozone debt crisis for the October 23 EU Summit.

However, there will be little detail on issues such as banking sector recapitalisation, private sector involvement in any debt restructuring or ‘leveraging’ the EFSF bailout fund until the report on Wednesday night by the Troika on Greece. The reward to EU leaders would be the potential for more aid from the IMF but even now it seems that a German government official has poured cold water of a plan being announced at the EU Summit which will disappoint markets.

There are also plenty of data releases for markets to digest over coming days including inflation releases, manufacturing surveys and industrial production data in the US while in Europe the German IFO and ZEW surveys are scheduled for release. The data will follow on from the better than expected September US retail sales releases at the end of last week continuing to dampen expectations that the global economy is falling in recession though there will be a marked deceleration in European data.

Meanwhile the US Q3 earnings season rolls. The risk on tone will likely continue to weigh on the USD and weigh on bonds but unlike a few weeks ago when a lot of bad news was priced in, the scope for disappointment is becoming increasingly high.

Many currencies remain highly correlated with gyrations in risk and in this respect the improvement in risk appetite is good news for high beta / commodity. AUD, NZD, CAD and JPY are amongst the most sensitive currencies and therefore prone to a bigger reaction as risk improves, with the former three strengthening and the JPY weakening. Asian currencies poised to benefit from firmer risk appetite include INR and KRW, both with relatively high correlations with risk.

EUR/USD has made a solid recovery over recent days from its lows around 1.3146 spurred by hopes of action by European officials. Such hopes may yet be dashed but the EUR looks supported over coming days ahead of the EU summit Speculative positioning also reflects a slight improvement in EUR sentiment as IMM short positions have declined in the last week but its worth noting that this week’s European data are unlikely to be supportive for the EUR.

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