Beyond Expectations

Egypt worries continue to reverberate across markets, yet there appears to be growing resilience or at least some perspective being placed on problems there. Encouraging economic data, particularly in the US has helped to shield markets to some extent, with equity market rallying and US bond yields rising last week. The main impact of Egypt and worries about Middle East contagion continues to be felt on oil prices.

Even the mixed US January jobs report has failed to dent market sentiment; the smaller than expected 36k increase in payrolls was largely attributed to severe weather. A further surprising drop in the unemployment rate to 9.0% due mainly to a significant drop in the labor force was also well received by the market.

There will be less market moving releases on tap this week and the data are unlikely to dent recovery hopes. Michigan confidence is set to record an improvement in February whilst the December trade deficit is set to widen to around $41.0 billion. There are also plenty of Federal Reserve speakers this week including a testimony by Chairman Bernanke.

One central bank that has softened its hawkish rhetoric is the European Central Bank (ECB), with President Trichet dampening speculation of an early rate hike last week and alleviating some of the pressure on eurozone interest rate markets. Consequently the EUR fell as the interest rate differential with the USD became somewhat less attractive. The EUR was also undermined by the opposition from some member states to French and German ideas for greater fiscal policy coordination, an aim apparently not shared across euro members.

Data in Europe will be largely second tier. The EUR will look increasingly vulnerable to a further drop this week especially given the increase in net positioning over the past week to (1st February) according to the CFTC IMM data. The potential for position squaring looms large as positioning is now well above the three-month average. Stops are seen just below EUR/USD 1.3540.

In the UK the Bank of England policy meeting will take centre stage but there is unlikely to be any change in policy settings. Clues to policy thinking will be available in the monetary policy committee meeting minutes in two weeks times but it seems unlikely that any more members have joined the two voting for a hike at the last meeting.

Recent data have been a little more encouraging helping to wash off the disappointment of the surprise drop in Q4 GDP. The UK industrial production report is likely to be similarly firm on Thursday, with the annual pace accelerating. GBP/USD may however, struggle to make much headway against the background of a firmer USD and the weigh of long positioning, with GBP/USD 1.6279 seen as strong resistance.

There are plenty of releases in Australia this week to focus including the January employment data, consumer confidence, and a testimony by RBA governor Stevens in front of the House of Representatives on Friday. The data slate started off somewhat poorly this week, with December retail sales coming in softer than expected, up 0.2% MoM. AUD/USD is likely to be another currency that may struggle to sustain gains this week but much will depend on data over coming days. Resistance is seen around 1.0255.

On a final note, the weekend’s sporting events highlight how it’s not just economic data or moves in currencies that don’t always go as expected. After a solid run in the Ashes cricket England slumped to a 6-1 series loss to Australia in the one-day series, putting the Ashes win into distant memory. A similarly solid performance by Man United was dented with their unbeaten record broken by bottom of the table Wolves.

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The Week Ahead

As markets make the last strides towards year end it appears that currencies at least are becoming increasingly resigned to trading in ranges. Even the beleaguered EUR has not traded far from the 1.3200 level despite significant bond market gyrations. Even news that inflation in China came in well above expectations in November (5.1% YoY) and increased prospects of a rate hike is likely to prompt a limited reaction from a lethargic market.

At the tail end of last week US data provided further support to the growing pool of evidence indicating strengthening US economic conditions, with the trade deficit surprisingly narrowing in October, a fact that will add to Q4 GDP growth, whilst the Michigan measure of consumer confidence registered a bigger than expected increase in November to its highest level since June.

The jump in consumer confidence bodes well for retail spending and highlights the prospects that US November retail sales tomorrow are set to reveal solid gains both headline and ex-autos sales driven by sales and promotions over the holiday season. Other data too, will paint an encouraging picture, with November industrial production (Wed) set to reveal a healthy gain helped by a bounce in utility output. Manufacturing surveys will be mixed with a rebound in the Empire manufacturing survey in December likely but in contrast a drop in the Philly Fed expected.

The main event this week is the FOMC decision tomorrow the Fed is expected to deliver few surprises. The Fed funds rate is expected to remain “exceptionally low for an extended period”. Despite some recent encouraging data recovery remains slow and the fact that core inflation continues to decelerate (CPI inflation data on Wednesday is set to reveal a benign outcome with core CPI at 0.6%) whilst the unemployment rate has moved higher means that the Fed is no rush to alter policy including its commitment to buy $600 billion in Treasuries including $105 billion between now and January 11.

In Europe there are also some key releases that will garner plenty of attention including the December German ZEW and IFO investor and manufacturing confidence surveys and flash purchasing managers indices (PMI) readings. The data are set to remain reasonably healthy and may keep market attention from straying to ongoing problems in the eurozone periphery but this will prove temporary at least until the markets are convinced that European Union leaders are shifting away from “piecemeal” solutions to ending the crisis. The EU leaders’ summit at the end of the week will be important in this respect. A Spanish debt auction on Thursday will also be in focus.

Assuming the forecasts for US data prove correct it is likely that US bond markets will remain under pressure unless the Fed says something that fuels a further decline in yield such as highlighting prospects for more quantitative easing (QE). However, following the tax compromise agreement last week this seems unlikely. Higher relative US bond yields will keep the USD supported, and as I have previously noted, the most sensitive currencies will be the AUD, EUR and JPY, all of which are likely to remain under varying degrees of downward pressure in the short term. The AUD will also be particularly sensitive to prospects of further Chinese monetary tightening.

Peripheral debt concerns intensify

European peripheral debt concerns have allowed the USD a semblance of support as the EUR/USD pullback appears to have gathered momentum following its post FOMC meeting peak of around 1.4282. The blow out in peripheral bond spreads has intensified, with Greek, Portuguese and Irish 10 year debt spreads against bonds widening by around 290bps, 136bps and 200bps, respectively from around mid October.

The EUR appears to have taken over from the USD, at least for now, as the weakest link in terms of currencies. EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a break below technical support around 1.3732. Aside from peripheral debt concerns US bonds yields have increased over recent days, with the spread between 10-year US and German bonds widening by around 17 basis points in favour of the USD since the beginning of the month.

The correlation between the bond spread and EUR/USD is significant at around 0.76 over the past 3-months, highlighting the importance of yield spreads in the recent move in the USD against some currencies. Similarly high correlations exist for AUD/USD, USD/JPY and USD/CHF.

Data today will offer little direction for markets suggesting that the risk off mood may continue. US data includes the September trade deficit. The data will be scrutinized for the balance with China, especially following the ongoing widening in the bilateral deficit over recent months, hitting a new record of $28 billion in August. Similarly an expected increase in China’s trade surplus will add to the currency tensions between the two countries. FX tensions will be highlighted at the Seoul G20 meeting beginning tomorrow, with criticism of US QE2 gathering steam.

Commodity and Asian currencies are looking somewhat precariously perched in the near term, with AUD/USD verging on a renewed decline through parity despite robust September home loan approvals data released this morning, which revealed a 1.3% gain, the third straight monthly increase.

However, the NZD looks even more vulnerable following comments by RBNZ governor Bollard that the strength of the Kiwi may reduce the need for higher interest rates. As a result, AUD/NZD has spiked and could see a renewed break above 1.3000 today. Asian currencies are also likely to remain on the backfoot today due both to a firmer USD in general but also nervousness ahead of the G20 meeting.

Temporary relief for US Dollar

Downbeat US economic news in the form of a widening US trade deficit, increase in jobless claims and bigger than expected increase in top line PPI inflation contrasted with upbeat earnings from Google. Google shares surged over 9% in after hours trading but US data tarnished the risk on mood of markets, leaving commodity prices and equities lower and the USD firmer. Higher US Treasury yields, especially in the longer end following a poor 30 year auction, helped the USD to push higher.

The USD’s trend is undoubtedly lower but profit taking may be the order of the day ahead of a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke on monetary policy later today and the release of the highly anticipated US Treasury Report in which China may be named as a currency manipulator. A speech by the Minneapolis Fed’s Kocherlatoka (non voter) this morning sounded downbeat, even suggesting that “Fed asset purchases may have a muted effect”. Despite such comments the Fed appears likely to embark on QE2 at its 3 November meeting.

Today is also a key data for US data releases with September data on US retail sales, and CPI and October data on Michigan confidence and Empire manufacturing scheduled for release. Retail sales are likely to look reasonable, with headline sales expected to rise 0.5% and ex-autos sales expected up 0.4%. The gauges of both manufacturing and consumer confidence are also likely to show some recovery whilst inflation pressures will remain benign. Given the uncertainty about the magnitude of QE the Fed will undertake in November, the CPI data will have added importance.

The US trade will likely have resulted in an intensification of expectations that China will be labelled as a currency manipulator in the US Treasury report later today. The August trade deficit with China widened $28.04 billion, the largest on record. At the least it will give further ammunition to the US Congress who are spoiling for a fight ahead of mid-term congressional elections, whilst heightening tensions ahead of the November G20 meeting.

Indeed currency frictions continue to increase although “currency war” seems to be an extreme label for it. Nonetheless, Singapore’s move yesterday to widen the SGD band highlighted the pressure that many central banks in the region are coming under to combat local currency strength. Singapore’s move may be a monetary tightening but it is also a tacit recognition of the costs of intervening to weaken or at least limit the strength of currencies in the region. To have maintained the previous band would have required ongoing and aggressive FX intervention which has its own costs in terms of sterilization.

This problem will remain as long as the USD remains weak and this in turn will depend on US QE policy and bond yields. A lot of negativity is priced into the USD and market positioning has become quite extreme suggesting that it will not all be a downhill bet for the currency. Many currencies breached or came close to testing key psychological and technical levels yesterday, with EUR/USD breaching 1.4000, GBP/USD breaking 1.6000, USD/CAD breaking below parity and AUD/USD coming close to testing parity. Some reversal is likely today, but any relief for the USD is likely to prove temporary.

US Dollar Tensions

There was considerable relief, most acutely in the US administration, that the US August jobs report revealed a better than expected outcome. To recap, private sector payrolls increased by 67k vs. an upwardly revised 107k in July whilst total non farm payrolls dropped 54k. The data sets the market up for a positive start to the week in terms of risk appetite despite Friday’s drop in the August US non-manufacturing ISM index, deflating some of the market’s upbeat mood.

Once again I wonder how long positive sentiment can be sustained with so many doubts about recovery prospects and limited ammunition on the fiscal front as well as some reluctance on the monetary front, to provide further stimulus should a double dip become a reality.

Markets will be treated to several major central bank decisions including from the Bank of Japan, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Reserve Bank of Australia this week. These meetings are set to prove uneventful, with unchanged decisions across the board expected although the Bank of Canada decision is a tough call.

The main US release this week is the Fed’s Beige Book on Wednesday, a report which will help the Fed to prepare for the FOMC meeting on September 21. The evidence contained within it is unlikely to be positive reading, with consumer spending set to be relatively soft and evidence of recovery likely to remain patchy.

On Thursday the US July trade deficit is set to reveal some narrowing and as usual the deficit with China will be of interest given the renewed tensions over FX policy. FX tension seems to be intensifying once again due to the relatively slow pace of CNY appreciation since the June de-pegging as well as political posturing ahead of November US mid-term elections. A deterioration in US trade data, a factor that largely contributed to the soft Q2 GDP outcome in contrast to a strengthening in China’s trade surplus will have added fuel to the fire.

The firmer risk backdrop has put the USD on the back foot, with the USD index dropping sharply overnight. Nonetheless, speculative USD positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals further short covering up to the end of August, implying USD speculative sentiment is actually turning less negative.

Another country which has a different sort of tension regarding the USD is Japan. Improving risk appetite will likely prevent the JPY from visiting previous highs against the USD but will do little to reduce FX intervention speculation. Indeed, there was more jawboning over the weekend on the subject, with Japan’s finance minister Noda reiterating that Japan would take decisive action to stem the JPY’s appreciation but adding that coordinated FX intervention was a difficult option. Clearly Japan us unlikely to succeed with unilateral FX intervention.

Political events have added to the debate on FX policy as focus turns to the election for leader of the ruling DPJ party next week, with a battle looming between current Prime Minister Kan and challenger Ozawa. Although Ozawa is unpopular with the electorate he yields plenty of political power, and appea rs to be more inclined towards FX intervention. Having failed to sustain a move above 85.00 the pull back in USD/JPY suggests little appetite to extend gains, likely leaving USD/JPY in a relatively tight range, with strong support around 83.55 and resistance around 85.23.

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