Risk on mood prevails

The end of the year looks as though it will finish in a firmly risk on mood. Equity volatility in the form of the VIX index at its lowest since July 2007. FX volatility remains relatively low. A lack of market participants and thinning volumes may explain this but perhaps after a tumultuous year, there is a certain degree of lethargy into year end.

Whether 2011 kicks off in similar mood is debatable given the many and varied worries remaining unresolved, not the least of which is the peripheral sovereign debt concerns in the eurozone. It is no surprise that the one currency still under pressure is the EUR and even talk that China offered to buy Portuguese sovereign bonds has done little to arrest its decline.

Reports of officials bids may give some support to EUR/USD just below 1.31 but the various downgrades to ratings and outlooks from ratings agencies over the past week has soured sentiment for the currency. The latest move came from Fitch ratings agency which placed Greece’s major banks on negative ratings watch following the move to place the country’s ratings on review for a possible downgrade.

The USD proved resilient to weaker than forecast data including a smaller than forecast 5.6% gain in existing home sales in November. The FHFA house price index recorded a surprise gain of 0.7% in October, which mitigated some of the damage. The revised estimate of US Q3 GDP revealed a smaller than expected revision higher to 2.6% QoQ annualized from a previous reading of 2.5%. Moreover, the core PCE was very soft at 0.5% QoQ, supporting the view that the Fed has plenty of room to keep policy very accommodative.

Despite the soft core PCE reading Philadelphia Fed President Plosser who will vote on the FOMC next year indicated that if the economy continues to strengthen he will look for the Fed to cut back on completing the $600 billion quantitative easing (QE) program. Although the tax deal passed by Congress will likely reduce the need for QE3, persistently high unemployment and soft core inflation will likely see the full $600 billion program completed. Today marks the heaviest day for US data this week, with attention turning to November durable goods orders, personal income and spending, jobless claims, final reading of Michigan confidence and November new home sales.

Overall the busy US data slate will likely maintain an encouraging pattern, with healthy gains in income and spending, a rebound in new home sales and the final reading of Michigan confidence likely to hold its gains in December. Meanwhile jobless claims are forecast to match the 420k reading last week, which should see the 4-week average around the 425k mark. This will be around the lowest since August 2008, signifying ongoing improvement in payrolls. The data should maintain the upward pressure on US bond yields, which in turn will keep the USD supported.

Please note that this will be the last post on Econometer.org this year. Seasons greatings and best wishes for the new year to all Econometer readers.

ECB, BoE and RBA in the spotlight

Double-dip fears are the pervading influence on market psychology at present even as European sovereign concerns appear to be easing. Friday’s release of the June US jobs report did little to alleviate such concerns but the headline payrolls number was less negative than the indications provided by other jobs data.

Growth fears have in particular been centred on the US in the wake of a run of disappointing data, These new found concerns have somewhat tarnished the USD’s ability to benefit from safe haven buying as risk aversion increases, as reflected in the 4.5% drop in the USD index since its high on 7th June. The prospects for the USD do not look too much better this week, but the drop is more likely a correction rather than a renewed weakening trend.

Having navigated its way through the European Central Bank’s (ECB) 12-month liquidity payback, various debt auctions, and Germany’s presidential election last week the EUR may find itself with less obstruction in its path but will nonetheless, likely struggle to make much headway this week. EUR speculative positioning, as indicated by the CFTC IMM data, reveals that there has been little short covering over the last couple of weeks, suggesting speculative sentiment remains negative.

Nonetheless, the rebound in EUR/USD has been impressive since its low around 1.1876 about a month ago and not just against the USD, with EUR making up ground on various crosses too including CHF and GBP. Easing sovereign concerns will have helped but there are plenty of downside risks ahead as austerity measures begin to bite and growth divergence becomes more apparent.

The ECB council meeting on Thursday is unlikely to give much direction for the EUR, with the meeting likely to pass with an unchanged rate decision and no change in economic assessment. There will be more attention on whether EUR/USD can maintain a toe hold above the psychologically important 1.2500 level, which I suspect may prove tough to hold this week.

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) also announces its rate decision (Tuesday) and will likely pause in tightening cycle. Recent data have remained positive, especially with regard to the labour market. The RBA will wait for the Q2 CPI data on July 28th before deciding on the next policy move, with jobs data on Thursday also likely to provide further clues. AUD/USD may struggle in the current environment where growth worries are prevalent, and the currency is likely to find it tough going over the coming weeks.

Finally, the Bank of England (BoE) meets this week too but like the ECB and RBA no change is likely. Although we will have to wait a couple of weeks for the minutes of the meeting it seems highly unlikely that MPC members will vote for a hike aside from Sentance who has espoused a more hawkish stance. Notably GBP speculative short positions have been scaled back over recent weeks as sentiment for the currency turns less negative but GBP gains against the USD will be more limited this week, with renewed GBP upside against the EUR more likely.

FX / Economic Preview

The European Union (EU) aid package for Greece and extension of collateral requirements by the European Central Bank (ECB) helped return a semblance of confidence to markets. Although the probability of a Greek default now looks extremely small, further austerity measures, fiscal issues in other EU countries and the negative impact on growth that all of this implies, suggest that Europe will be plagued by various problems for some time yet.

As a result of more favourable market conditions Greece is set to launch a syndicated bond issues today or tomorrow of up EUR 5 billion according to press reports. Attention will also turn to Greek debt rollovers, beginning with EUR 8.2 billion on April 20.

Improving sentiment following the Greece deal has extended to the EUR, with the currency bouncing off its lows around 1.3267. EUR/USD will now look to break through resistance around 1.3446, which would set up a test of 1.3516. There is plenty of scope for short-covering to help the EUR as reflected in the latest IMM Commitment of Traders’ report (a gauge of speculative market positioning) which revealed net EUR positions reaching yet another record low in the week to 23rd March. Whilst sovereign/official buying interest may keep EUR/USD supported this week the currency pair is best played as a sell on rallies.

A similar assessment applies for GBP. Speculative sentiment for the currency also hit a record low in the latest week but unlike the Greek deal helping the EUR, last week’s UK budget has done little to boost GBP’s prospects. Moreover, a report in the Financial Times highlighting hedge funds bets against GBP, suggests that there are still plenty of headwinds against the currency.

Volumes are set to thin out this week ahead of upcoming holidays, whilst the US March jobs report at the end of the week will likely prevent moves out of current ranges ahead of its release. The consensus forecast is for a 190k increase in non-farm payrolls though much of this is likely to reflect hiring for the 2010 US consensus and a rebound from adverse weather effects in February.

In Europe March economic confidence surveys will be watched closely to determine how much damage Greece and general fiscal woes are having on sentiment. Some improvement, in line with the Eurozone Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) and the German IFO business confidence survey, is expected, which will help to give further, albeit limited relief to the EUR.

The Japanese data slate kicked off the week in good form, with the release of February retail sales data, revealing its biggest annual increase in 12-years. It is difficult to see the recovery in sales taking much greater hold given persistent deflation pressures however, and part of the gain probably reflects the government’s shopping incentive program.

Aside from industrial production and jobs data in Japan the key release will be the results of the Q1 Tankan survey on Wednesday. The survey of manufacturers’ confidence is set to show further improvement. USD/JPY is likely to remain supported around 91.67 but will need a further widening in US/Japan 10-year bond yield spreads to push higher.

GBP bulls brave or crazy?

The UK Pound’s (GBP) performance over recent months has been dismal. The currency has failed to show any real sign of recovery, having fallen to and below the psychologically important level of 1.50 against the USD. A number of factors including fiscal/debt concerns, political worries, and uncertainties about whether the Bank of England will step up asset purchases, have accumulated to turn even the most ardent GBP bulls into bears.

The outcome of the upcoming UK general election widely expected on May 6, remains a major weight on GBP sentiment. Until the outcome is clear or unless one or other party develops a clear lead in the polls, it is difficult o see GBP sustain any durable recovery. In the near term GBP/USD is vulnerable to a test of its 2010 low around 1.4780 and then towards 1.44. The risk to this is that the market is very short GBP which could result in a sharp bounce in GBP in the wake of any good news. However, a rally in GBP will only result in fresh sellers.

Ahead of the elections will be the budget and this will be closely scrutinized for steps to reduce the size of the burgeoning fiscal deficit. Whichever party comes into power will need to convince markets that a credible and timely plan exists to reduce the size of the deficit and prevent a sovereign ratings downgrade. If not, GBP could see itself under much more pressure. In this respect it’s worth noting the Fitch ratings warning that the UK sovereign credit profile has deteriorated.

It’s not all bad for GBP, however. By some measures it’s now the most undervalued major currency, opening up the possibility of a sharper bounce back over the medium term. Moreover, UK debt markets are already trading as if a ratings downgrade has taken place, whilst arguably GBP has also priced in a lot of negative news already, as reflected in the very negative speculative positioning in the currency.

The economic news is also not as bad as the headlines might suggest and although recent housing data has been a bit mixed, both consumer spending and the housing market have held up reasonably well. Bearing all this in mind GBP is set to recover over the medium term, but it would be very brave to buy the currency any time soon, at least until UK elections are out of the way.

PIIGS fears fuelling risk aversion

Risk aversion has come back with a vengeance over the last 10 days driven by a host of concerns that continue to damage market sentiment. As has been evident over the past year the USD and JPY remain the best currency plays against the background of rising risk aversion and both currencies look well supported.

Market concerns are not going away quickly but some of the fears plaguing markets have at least receded especially on the US political front, with Obama’s State of the Union address, Geithner’s testimony on AIG and Bernanke’s reappointment all passing without too much incident, at least from a market perspective. I still believe that market fears are overblown but it is clearly evident that the market is not in the mood to concur. More pain is likely in the weeks ahead.

Euro-sovereign spreads continue to suffer from the ongoing Greek saga whilst the other major fear remains further monetary tightening in China. Rumours that China is about to imminently revalue the CNY are also running rife. The bigger than expected hike in the reserve ratio in India reflects the fact that Asia is on a faster track to tighten policy than Western economies.

As regular readers probably noticed, my articles on econometer.org have been sporadic recently. This is due to the fact that I have been on the road for the last two weeks giving client seminars across several countries in Asia. Without giving too much away it is evident that pessimism is pervasive and most investors I polled are looking for a “W” or “double dip” profile for economic growth in the G7 economies over coming months. Hardly anyone looked for a “V”.

The other casualty emanating from Greece’s woes, as well as worries that other European PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) face ratings downgrades, is the EUR. EUR/USD slipped below the psychologically important level of 1.40 this week and is showing no sign of turning around. Warnings by S&P ratings that Portugal faces challenges on the fiscal front show that these sovereign concerns will be with us for a long while yet.

After letting investors believe that the European Commission would offer no support for Greece, there appears to be a growing realization that Greece is not simply a local problem but a Euro wide problem, as noted by European Commission President Barroso. Whilst this may be good for Greek debt the path to recovery is still likely to be a massively painful one, and the EUR may gain little support from this news.

The UK has not escaped the clutches of ratings agencies and warnings by S&P that UK banks are no longer among the “most stable and low-risk” in the world highlights the headwinds faced by GBP at present. The weaker than expected out-turn for Q4 GDP (0.1%) highlights the fact that UK economic recovery is fragile, which in turn plays negatively for the banking sector. This news has put a break on GBP but there appears to be plenty of demand for GBP above 1.600 vs USD.

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