Greece throws a spanner in the works

Having already retraced around 50% of its losses from its high around 4 April to its low on 27 October the USD index is on a firm footing and looks set to extend gains. The USD is benefitting both from the EUR’s woes and receding expectations of more US quantitative easing in the wake of less negative US data releases.

Whether the USD is able to build on its gains will depend on the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting, accompanying statement and press conference today. While there have been some noises from Fed officials about the prospects of more QE, the Fed is likely to keep policy settings unchanged, leaving the USD on the front foot.

Greece has thrown a spanner in the works by calling a national referendum on the European deal. The fact that this referendum may not take place until January will bring about a prolonged period of uncertainty and further downside risks for the EUR against the USD and on the crosses. As a result of the increased uncertainty from the referendum, growing doubts about various aspects of last week’s agreement as well as hesitation from emerging market investors to buy into any European investment vehicle, peripheral bond spreads blew out further, and the EUR dropped.

The immediate focus will be on emergency talks today between European leaders in Cannes where Greek Prime Minister Papandreou has been summoned at a time when his grip on power appears to be slipping ahead of a government confidence vote on Friday. EUR/USD looks set to slip to support around 1.3525.

The Swiss National Bank’s floor under EUR/CHF has held up well since it was implemented in early September. How well it can be sustained going forward is questionable especially given that risk aversion is intensifying once again. A weaker than forecast reading for the Swiss October manufacturing PMI yesterday falling further below the 50 boom / bust reading to 46.9 highlights the growing economic risks and consequent pressure to prevent the CHF from strengthening further. However, now that Japan has shown its teeth in the form of FX intervention the CHF may find itself once again as the target of safe haven flows.

Technical indicators revealed that GBP was overbought and its correction lower was well overdue. However, GBP looks in better shape than the EUR even in the wake of some mixed UK data yesterday. On a positive note, UK Q3 GDP surprised on the upside in line with our expectations coming in at 0.5% QoQ. However, the forward looking PMI manufacturing index dropped more than expected in October, down to 47.4 suggesting that UK economic momentum is waning quickly.

EUR/GBP looks set to test its 12 September low around 0.8259 but GBP/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back against a resurgent USD. Overall, GBP’s resilience despite the implementation of more quantitative easing by the Bank of England has been impressive and I expect it to continue to benefit from its semi safe haven status

Strengthening risk appetite hitting the dollar

Strengthening risk appetite is taking its toll on the USD, with the USD index now down around 3.5% from its 4 October peak. Although equity markets probably liked the news the USD was dealt another blow from the FOMC minutes which revealed that some Fed officials were keen on embarking on further large-scale asset purchases after recognizing that the impact of Operation Twist will not be so potent.

Earnings will have some impact on risk and in turn the USD, with Q3 earnings from JP Morgan and Google on tap today. However, risk appetite looks well supported and in a market that became long USDs very quickly, this suggests some scope for squaring long positions in the short term.

What comes next for the EUR? The currency has bounced from its lows and has made considerable ground against the USD over recent sessions. Markets quickly got over Slovakia’s initial rejection of the EFSF’s enhancement as agreement was reached by officials in the country to approve the mechanism in a second vote. However, there is not much news on the progress on issues such as European banking sector recapitalisation, ‘leveraging’ the EFSF or the any change in creditor participation in any Greek debt restructuring.

Although European Commission President Barroso gave some broad outlines of what should be done to recapitalise banks disagreement among officials meant that there was little detail. Perhaps no news is good news and in any case markets will have to wait for the delayed EU Summit for further news, but the longer the wait the greater the scepticism and attendant downside risks to EUR.

The Swiss National Bank must be content with their stance on the CHF. Since the imposition of a ceiling for CHF versus EUR at 1.2000, and after an initial sharp jump higher the currency pair has continued to edge upwards. Meanwhile, speculation that the SNB may even raise the ceiling to 1.30 has grown as domestic complaints such as those from the country’s largest telecoms operator yesterday about the ongoing strength in the currency, continue.

The SNB has not indicated that it favors such a move and may be content with a gradual decline in the CHF as is taking place now, but should the fragile market calm at present disintegrate the SNB may have another battle on their hands as appetite for the currency strengthens anew. On the top side resistance is seen around 1.2469 for EUR/CHF.

Like many other high beta currencies AUD is being influenced less by domestic factors and more by risk aversion. Even more influential to the direction of AUD/USD is the movement in commodity prices and like risk aversion this had a negative influence on AUD as commodity prices dropped sharply over September.

Due to a bounce in both risk and commodities AUD has bounced sharply from its recent lows back above parity with the USD. AUD will have found further support from the firm September jobs report today. It is difficult to go against rising risk appetite at present but there is still a significant risk that hopes of a solution to the eurozone’s woes do not materialise while growth expectations are pared back further. Against this background the AUD will remain susceptible to sharp

SNB shakes up FX markets – Pressure now on Japan?

The action by the Swiss National Bank yesterday rippled through FX markets fuelling sharp moves across major currencies. In case you missed it the SNB introduced a currency floor in EUR/CHF at 1.20 and committed itself to buy FX in unlimited amounts. The last time the SNB did something similar was in 1978 when a ceiling was set against the Deutsche Mark. The sharp initial reaction to the news saw EUR/CHF jump by around 8.5% largely as a result of the shock from the announcement.

The SNB will not need to worry about the inflationary implications of pumping CHF into the market while it is clear that the currency is highly overvalued, supporting their cause. However, the real test will be evident over coming days and weeks in the commitment to hold the 1.20 level at a time when the situation in the eurozone periphery continues to deteriorate and demand for CHF remains strong. The risk is that the SNB may have simply set up a target for markets to attack. One other implication of the SNB’s move is that it could be a trigger for an intensification of ‘currency wars’.

The onus is now on the Japanese authorities to act more aggressively especially if safe haven flows focus increasingly on the JPY and less on the CHF given the new EUR/CHF floor. So far FX interventions have clearly not worked as was the case in Switzerland and Japan’s new Prime Minister is likely to want to prove his credentials. Japan has had a tendency to underwhelm with regard to JPY measures in the past and unless there is a major announcement today USD/JPY is likely to move lower again below 77.00.

Scandinavian currencies are also set to be beneficiaries of the SNB’s decision. EUR/SEK has come under increasing downside pressure over recent weeks even as risk aversion has intensified and it appears that safe haven flows out of Europe are now targeting Scandinavian currencies. As the CHF is now less attractive in this respect, the SEK as well as NOK will find themselves under further upside pressure over coming days and weeks. Both NOK and SEK versus EUR and USD have had insignificant correlations with risk over recent months, highlighting their appeal as anti-EUR currencies.

Swiss franc to remain strong

Given the uncertainties enveloping both the US and Europe safe haven and various emerging market currencies have looked increasingly attractive. Currencies that remain on top in the current environment are the CHF and to a lesser extent the JPY, much to the chagrin of the Swiss and Japanese authorities. Indeed, in reaction to unwanted CHF strength the Swiss central bank, SNB unexpectedly cut interest rates and said it will increase CHF liquidity to the money markets. The CHF fell in the wake of the announcement but the impact may prove short lived.

Both the JPY and CHF have registered a strong correlation with risk aversion over the last 3-months, strengthening as risk aversion has intensified. In particular, the CHF has been the best performing major currency this year and shows no sign of turning around despite the fact that it has already strengthened by around 21% against the USD and over 12% against the EUR. The Swiss National Bank had even ceased from intervening in the currency markets given the lack of success and pain on the SNB’s balance sheet.

The Japanese authorities last intervened in the FX market in March 2011 following the devastating earthquake in the country. However, despite the fact that the JPY has strengthened after a brief period of success, the authorities have been reluctant to intervene since. The major explanation for a lack of intervention is that the Japanese authorities blame the drop in USD/JPY on USD weakness rather than inherent JPY strength. A more accurate reason is that the yield differential between the US and Japan has narrowed, leading to JPY strength versus USD while more recently rising risk aversion has pushed the JPY higher.

I am bearish on both the CHF and JPY over the medium term but clearly any drop in these currencies is taking longer than initially anticipated. Higher relative yields taken together with some normalisation in risk appetite will help but the risks at present are still skewed for further CHF and JPY strength in the short term given that risk aversion remains elevated. The fact that peripheral bond spreads in Europe have continued to widen will only raise the attraction of the CHF as a safe haven currency so despite the SNB’s new measures, it may do little to prevent further strength in the currency.

Risk Aversion Creeps Higher

The USD index has dropped by around 17% since June 2010 high and despite a slight bounce this week it is unlikely to mark the beginning of a sustained turnaround. Nonetheless, I would caution about getting carried away with positioning for USD weakness. Whilst an imminent recovery looks unlikely the risk/reward of shorting the USD is becoming increasingly unfavourable.

Until then Federal Reserve comments will be watched closely for clues on policy and there are plenty of Fed speakers this week including a speech by Boston Fed’s Rosengren today and Fed Chairman Bernanke tomorrow. The USD will also gain some direction from jobs data and markets will be able to gauge more clues for Friday’s non-farm payrolls data , with the release of the April ADP employment report today.

The EUR is one currency that has suffered this week. News that Portugal’s caretaker government has reached an agreement with the European Union / International Monetary Fund on a bailout of as much as EUR 78 billion has so far been greeted with a muted response. EUR attention is still very much focussed on the ECB meeting tomorrow and prospects of a hawkish press statement suggest that EUR/USD downside will be limited, with support seen around 1.4755.

The JPY has strengthened by around 5% versus USD since its 6th April USD/JPY high around 85.53, confounding expectations that Japan’s FX intervention following the county’s devastating earthquake marked a major turning point in the currency. A combination of narrowing interest rate differentials with the US (2 year US/Japan yield differentials have narrowed by around 20bps in the past month), strong capital inflows to Japan (net bond and equity flows in the last four weeks have increased to their highest this year), and rising risk aversion have all played their part in driving the JPY higher.

As a result USD/JPY is fast approaching the psychologically important level of 80, a level that if breached will likely lead to FX intervention. Although Golden Week holidays in Japan this week suggest that JPY liquidity may be quite thin, Japanese authorities are likely to remain resistant to further gains in the JPY, likely using thinning liquidity to their advantage.

Despite the JPY’s recent strength speculative positioning over the past four weeks has remained net short JPY, whilst Japanese margin traders have also increased their long USD/JPY bets, suggesting that these classes of investors are not to blame for the JPY’s appreciation. This suggests that FX intervention may not be as successful given that the market is already short JPY.

Given the risk of intervention on USD/JPY, the CHF appears to be an easier choice for safe haven demand against the background of rising risk aversion. The currency has risen to a record high against the USD, gaining around 8.3% so far this year. Given the hints of higher interest rates by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) and resilience economic performance, downside risks for CHF are limited at present unless risk appetite improves sharply. Further gains are likely with USD/CHF likely to test the 0.8570 support level over the short-term.

Upside risks to US payrolls

An encouraging run of US data releases over recent weeks became even more solid overnight. In particular the December ADP private sector jobs report revealed a whopping 297k increase, its highest ever reading. Although the outsized gain may be attributable to distortions such as seasonal factors it will lead many to scramble to revise higher estimates for non-farm payrolls to around 200k+ (consensus currently is 150k). Similarly the December ISM non-manufacturing survey came in higher than expected at 57.1, its highest reading since May 2006. Notably the employment component softened in contrast to the ADP data.

Whilst the US outlook appears to be improving the eurozone picture is looking decidedly shaky. Peripheral bonds remain under pressure as reflected in the renewed widening in German-Greek spreads whilst Portugal’s sale of 6m bills revealed good demand but at a much higher yield (3.69% vs. 2.05% in September). Press reports that the Swiss National Bank has stopped accepting Irish government debt as collateral didn’t help matters whilst talk of conditions attached to any Chinese support for eurozone countries also weighed on sentiment.

Adding to concerns is the ongoing political impasse in Belgium where 7 months after elections there has yet to be a new government formed. The risk of a downgrade to the country’s credit ratings is high especially given the lack of progress on deficit reduction. Meanwhile on the data front the Eurozone service sector PMI was stronger than forecast in December at 54.2 but the country breakdown revealed more divergence in economic conditions. This was echoed in the manufacturing PMI. Divergence in growth is likely to widen further this year and whilst the strength of Germany may prevent a sharp slowing in overall growth in the eurozone, growing divergence will make the job of the ECB difficult.

The net result of firmer US data is a broadly stronger USD and higher Treasury yields. The EUR in contrast looks as though it is on the verge of a sharper decline below 1.3000, with technical support seen around 1.2969 whilst the JPY could see further weakness given the move in relative US/Japan bond yields. There will be little direction today from data with just Eurozone sentiment gauges and retail sales tap whilst in the US jobless claims will be in focus. However, there will probably be little movement ahead of the US jobs report tomorrow.

Stressing About European Stress Tests

Equities and risk appetite were bolstered by the relative success of the Spanish bond auction on Thursday. The results of the auction in which Spain sold EUR 3 billion in 10 year notes helped to stem some of the pressure on eurozone bond spreads, which despite the generalized improvement in market sentiment over recent days, had been continuing to widen.

Another key indicator that has been suggested that all is not well moving in the opposite direction to the improvement in many risk indicators is the Baltic Dry Index which has dropped by around a third since 26th May 2010.

Perhaps more significant in terms of providing sustainable support for markets was the news that the European Union agreed to publish the results of bank stress tests, slated for the second half of July. This could turn out to be a key stepping stone towards increasing the transparency of the eurozone banking sector.

However, doubts will remain until there is some clarity on the terms of the tests such as whether they include details of sovereign debt exposure. Also, if the stress tests reveal shortcomings in the banks in question it is unclear if government funding will be provided for them. Although the publishing of stress test results is a step in the right direction until these and other questions are answered it is difficult to see markets getting too excited.

It’s not all plain sailing for equity markets despite the relatively positive news in Europe as disappointing US data in the form of a surprise jump in weekly jobless claims and a bigger than expected drop in the June Philly Fed survey weighed in on the side of those expecting both a slow and jobless recovery in the US.

The CHF has been a key mover following the Swiss National Bank policy decision. The decision to leave interest rates unchanged was no surprise, but the change in rhetoric towards a less aggressive stance towards CHF strength opens up the floodgates for CHF buyers. will look to test its all time low around 1.3720.

Another central bank that has shown concern about a strengthening currency is the Bank of Japan but unlike the SNB Japan’s central bank has not intervened for several years. The BoJ in the minutes of its May meeting noted that it will “watch if Europe’s crisis strengthens JPY”, indicating some concern about JPY strength.

This sentiment that was echoed by the Japanese government in the release of Economic Growth Strategy aimed at avoiding an excessive rise in the JPY via fiscal and monetary steps to beat deflation. The JPY barely reacted to both the minutes and the growth strategy, with market players likely sceptical until concrete measures are actually implemented.

It still look like an environment of sell on rallies for the EUR and other risk currencies, with their gains likely to run out of steam over coming days. The next key technical level for EUR/USD is around 1.2454, a level that will prove a tough nut to crack.

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