Ratings rampage hits Euro

Both the data flow and market liquidity will be thin over the last couple of weeks of the year. After a bashing over much of H2 2010 it looks as though the USD will end the year in strong form having risen by over 6% since its early November low. In contrast the EUR is struggling having found no support from the meeting of European Union officials at the end of last week in which they agreed to a permanent sovereign debt resolution after 2013 but failed to agree on expanding the size of the bailout fund (EFSF). Similarly there was no traction towards a common euro bond. EUR/USD is now verging on its 200-day moving average around 1.3102, a break of which could see a drop to around 1.2960.

The failure to enlarge the size of the EFSF was disappointing given worries that it is perceived to be insufficient to cope with the bailout of larger eurozone countries if needed. It also highlight that the burden on the European Central Bank (ECB) to prop up eurozone bond markets until confidence improves. The increase in the size of ECB capital from EUR 5.8 billion to EUR 10.8 billion will help in this respect. Such support was clearly needed last week following the rampage across Europe by ratings agencies culminating in Moody’s five notch downgrade of Ireland’s credit ratings, surprising because of its severity rather than the downgrade itself. Ireland’s ratings are now just two notches above junk status and the negative outlook could mean more to come.

It was not just Ireland’s ratings that came under scrutiny. Ireland’s multi notch downgrade followed Moody’s decision to place Greece and Spain on review for a possible downgrade whilst S&P revised Belgium’s outlook to negative. Unsurprisingly peripheral debt markets came under renewed pressure as a result outweighing positive news in the form of strong flash eurozone PMI readings and firm German IFO business confidence survey. EUR did not escape and sentiment for the currency remains weak, with CFTC IMM speculative positioning data revealing a fourth straight week of net EUR short positioning in the week to 14th December.

In contrast, sentiment for the US economy continues to improve. Congress’ swift passage of President Obama’s fiscal plan will help to shore up confidence in US recovery. Data this week will be broadly positive too. On Wednesday, US Q3 GDP data is likely to be upwardly revised to a 2.8% QoQ annualized rate. Durable goods orders excluding transportation are set to increase by a healthy 2.0% (Thu) whilst both existing (Wed) and new (Thu) home sales will reveal rebounds in November following a drop in the previous month.

In the UK the main highlight is the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes. Another three way split is expected but this should not cause more than a ripple in FX markets. GBP/USD has slipped over recent days but there appears to be little other than general USD strength responsible for this. The currency pair looks vulnerable to a drop below 1.5500, with 1.5405 seen as the next support level. On balance, the USD will be in good form this week although the drop in US bond yields at the end of last week may take some of the wind out of its sails.

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USD pressure, EUR resilience, GBP whipsawed

Speculation the Fed will begin a new program of asset purchases or QE2 as soon as November is intensifying. The weaker than expected reading for US consumer confidence in September released on Tuesday has only added to this expectation as sentiment continues to be hit by job market concerns. Against this background the USD remains under strong downward pressure, with little sign of any turnaround.

The prospects of further USD debasing as well as intervention in many countries to prevent their currencies from strengthening against the USD continues to power gold prices which hit a new record high having breezed through the $1300 per troy ounce mark. In the current environment it is hard to see gold prices turning much lower although there may be some risk of profit taking in the weeks ahead.

The EUR remains a key beneficiary of USD weakness but this currency has problems of its own to contend with. Indeed, peripheral debt concerns, especially with regard to Ireland and to a lesser extent Portugal have increased, with borrowing costs rising as the yield on their debt widens against core eurozone debt. The stronger EUR will only make it harder for these countries to achieve any sort of recovery and could also damage the stronger exporting countries of Northern Europe led by Germany.

So far however, the EUR has managed to show some impressive resilience to renewed peripheral country sovereign debt concerns including comments by S&P about the high costs of rescuing an Irish Bank. Perhaps the knowledge that there is a still a huge bailout fund from the EU and IMF available if needed and also the prospect that the ECB will increase its buying of eurozone debt, has provided a buffer for the EUR.

At some point the ECB may be forced to join the battle in at least attempting to talk its currency lower but at this stage the central bank is showing no inclination to either talk down the currency or physically intervene to weaken the EUR. In the meantime, EUR/USD is likely to strengthen further despite the likely negative impact on European growth, with the currency likely to set its sights on an eventual break above 1.40.

One currency that may struggle in the wake of expectations of Fed QE2 is GBP. Uncertainty over whether the Bank of England will follow the Fed in implementing further quantitative easing could see GBP lag the gains in other currencies against the USD. Conflicting comments from MPC members Posen who noted that there may be a need for further QE in the UK to support the faltering economy were countered by Sentance who noted that there was no need for more QE. GBP/USD is likely be whipsawed as the debate continues and is set to lose further ground against the EUR.

No Let Up in USD Pressure

At the end of a momentous week for currency markets it’s worth taking stock of how things stand. Much uncertainty remains about the global growth outlook, especially with regard to the US economy, potential for a double-dip and further Fed quantitative easing. Although there is little chance of QE2 being implemented at next week’s Fed FOMC meeting speculation will likely remain rife until there is clearer direction about the path of the US economy.

In Europe, sovereign debt concerns have eased as reflected in the positive reception to debt auctions this week. Nonetheless, after a strong H1 2010 in terms of eurozone economic growth the outlook over the rest of the year is clouded. Such uncertainty means that markets will also find it difficult to find a clear direction leaving asset markets at the whim of day to day data releases and official comments.

The added element of uncertainty has been provided by Japan following its FX intervention this week. Whilst Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention this will not only keep the JPY on the back foot but will provide a much needed prop for the USD in general. Indeed Japan’s intervention has had the inadvertent effect of slowing but not quite stopping the decline in the USD, at least for the present.

The fact that Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention suggests that markets will be wary of selling the USD aggressively in the short term. The headwinds on the USD are likely to persist for sometime however, regardless of intervention by Japan and/or other Asian central banks across Asia, until the uncertainty over the economy and QE2 clears.

Japan’s intervention has not gone down well with the US or European authorities judging by comments made by various officials. In particular, the FX intervention comes at a rather sensitive time just as the US is piling on pressure on China to allow its currency the CNY to strengthen further. Although US Treasury Secretary Geithner didn’t go as far as proposing trade and legal measures in his appearance before Congress yesterday there is plenty of pressure from US lawmakers for the administration to take a more aggressive stance, especially ahead of mid-term Congressional elections in November. Ironically, the pressure has intensified just as China has allowed a more rapid pace of CNY nominal appreciation over recent days although it is still weaker against its basket according to our calculations.

Another country that has seen its central bank intervening over many months is Switzerland, with the SNB having been aggressively intervening to prevent the CHF climbing too rapidly. However, in contrast to Japan the SNB is gradually stepping back from its intervention policy stating yesterday that it would only intervene if the risk of deflation increased. Even so, Japan may have lent the Swiss authorities a hand, with EUR/CHF climbing over recent days following Japan’s intervention.

The move in EUR/CHF accelerated following yesterday’s SNB policy meeting in which the Bank cut its inflation forecasts through 2013, whilst stating that the current policy stance in “appropriate”. Moreover, forecasts of “marked” slowdown in growth over the rest of the year highlight the now slim chance of policy rates rising anytime soon. Markets will eye technical resistance around 1.3459 as a near term target but eventually the CHF will likely resume its appreciation trend, with a move back below EUR/CHF 1.3000 on the cards.

Quantitative easing and the USD

US earnings are coming in ahead of expectations, with Q2 income at the 42 S&P 500 companies reporting so far beating estimates by 11% whilst revenues are 3.3% ahead of forecasts, according to Bloomberg. The overall tone to equities looks positive helped by expectations of an agreement by BP to sell some of its assets and strong earnings reported by Apple after the close of US trade.

Market sentiment was also boosted by speculation that the Fed will embark on fresh monetary stimulus measures. Although there has been no indication that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce such measures at his semi-annual testimony to the Senate today and to the House tomorrow, speculation of Fed action is rife and there is likely to be some questioning of Bernanke on the issue in the Q&A. If in any way quantitative easing is hinted at by Bernanke, it will act to undermine the USD.

US economic data is helping to compound expectations of further quantitative easing, with yet another weaker than forecast release in the form of a 5.0% drop in June housing starts as hinted at by the bigger than expected drop in homebuilders confidence on the previous day. Separately ABC consumer confidence declined more than expected in the week to July 18, its third consecutive weekly decline, supporting the evidence that consumer confidence is deteriorating once again.

In the absence of major data releases Bernanke’s testimony will be the main driver for markets but earnings from Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley will also be of interest. Elsewhere the minutes of the Bank of England’s July MPC meeting will be under scrutiny. MPC member Sentance is expected to have voted for a rate hike at the meeting, but any sign that other members joined him, will give GBP a lift. Sentiment for European assets continues to improve, with Greece concluding a well received T-bill auction and Ireland auctioning EUR 1.5bn in 6 and 10-year bonds. Both were heavily oversubscribed although concerns over Hungary continue to linger.

There continue to be various leaks about the European bank stress tests. Banks are expected to detail three scenarios in the results including estimated Tier 1 capital ratios under a benchmark for 2011, an adverse scenario and finally, a “sovereign shock”, according to a document from the Committee of European banking Supervisors. Importantly and perhaps a factor that could hit the credibility of the tests, the sovereign shock scenario is said to not include a scenario of default on sovereign debt.

I continue to see downside risk for the EUR in the wake of the test results, with a “buy on rumour, sell on fact” reaction likely. EUR/USD is vulnerable to a short-term drop to technical support around 1.2763 but much depends on Bernanke’s speech today. Leaks, suggest that around 10-20 banks could fail the bank stress tests, with a total funding requirement in the region of EUR 70-90 billion. Confirmation will have to wait for the official release on Friday ahead of which most currencies are likely to remain range-bound.

EUR strength is overdone

The latest in a long line of disappointing US data was released on Friday. University of Michigan consumer confidence sent an alarming signal about the propensity of the US consumer to contribute to economic recovery. Confidence dropped much more than expected, to its lowest level since August 2009, fuelling yet more angst about a double-dip in growth.

The Fed’s relatively dovish FOMC minutes last week contributed to the malaise and undermined the USD in the process as attention switched from the timing of exit strategies to whether the Fed will expand quantitative easing. Friday’s benign June CPI report left no doubt that the Fed has plenty of room on its hands, with core inflation remaining below 1% and likely to decelerate further over the coming months. Against this background Fed Chairman Bernanke’s semi-annual testimony to the US Congress (Wed/Thu) will be a particular focus, especially if he hints at potential for further QE, a possibility that appears remote, but could harm the USD.

Arguably the biggest event of the week is the European bank stress test results on Friday. Although several European governments have suggested that the banks in their countries will pass the tests there is still a considerable event risk surrounding the announcement. 91 banks are being tested and much will depend on how rigorous the tests are perceived to be. Should they be seen not to be sufficiently thorough, for instance in determining a realistic haircut on sovereign debt holdings, the potential for pressure on the EUR to increase once again will be high. Similarly debt auctions across Europe this week will also garner interest but similar success to last week’s Spanish auction cannot be guaranteed.

The big question in FX markets is whether the EUR can hold onto its recent gains and whether the USD will be punished further amidst growing double-dip worries. Interestingly the USD’s reaction on Friday to the soft consumer confidence data was not as negative as has been the case recently, with higher risk aversion once again outweighing negative cyclical influences. Various risk currencies actually came under pressure against the USD and this is likely to extend into this week. Despite a threat to the USD from any QE hints by Bernanke, speculative positioning has turned net short USD once again suggesting potential for less USD selling.

The bigger risk this week is to the EUR, which could face pressure on any disappointment from the bank stress test results. The EUR was strong against most major currencies last week, suggesting that the strengthening in EUR/USD is less to do with USD weakness, but more related to EUR strength. This strength in the EUR is hard to tally with the worsening economic outlook in the eurozone and the fact that a stronger EUR from an already overvalued level will crimp eurozone growth further. The latest CFTC IMM data has revealed a further covering of short positions, but this is likely to be close to running its course. Technically EUR/USD has broken above its ‘thick’ Ichimoku cloud, and the weekly MACD is turning above its signal line from oversold levels suggesting a period of further strength but its gains are set to be short-lived.

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