Ratings agencies spoil the party

Just as I thought that attention may finally switch to the US along comes the ratings agencies to spoil the party once again. Moody’s and Fitch Ratings criticised last week’s European Union Summit outcome for falling short of a comprehensive solution to Eurozone ills. Consequently the risk of further sovereign credit downgrades across Europe remains high over coming weeks especially as economic growth weakens. Moody’s also put 8 Spanish banks and two bank holding companies on review for a possible downgrade.

The EUR and Eurozone bonds came under pressure as a result, with EUR/USD verging on its strong support level around 1.3146. Further pressure is likely into year end although the fact that the speculative market is still very short EUR may limit its downside potential in the short term. Disappointment that the ECB has not stepped up to the plate to support the Eurozone bond market more aggressively is also having a damaging effect on confidence. A test of sentiment will come from today’s EFSF and Spanish bill auctions while on the data front we look for a below consensus outcome for the German December ZEW survey, which will deteriorate further.

The comments from the ratings agencies resulted in risk assets coming under pressure once again, leaving the market open to further selling today given the lack of positives. US data and events will at least garner some attention, with the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting and November retail sales on tap. We do not look for any big surprise from either of these, but at least the Fed may sound a little more positive in light of firmer data over recent weeks. Even so, speculation of more Fed QE early next year will remain in place. In the current environment demand for US Treasuries remains strong with a Treasury auction yesterday receiving the highest bid/cover ratio since 1993.

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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.

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.

Capital Flowing Out of Europe

When investors’ concerns shift from how low will the EUR go to whether the currency will even exist in its current form, it is blatantly evident that there is a very long way to go to solve the eurozone’s many and varied problems. As many analysts scramble to revise forecasts to catch up with the declining EUR, the question of the long term future of the single currency has become the bigger issue. Although the EUR 750 billion support package was hailed by EU leaders as the means to prevent further damage to the credibility of the EUR, it has failed to prevent a further decline, but instead revealed even deeper splits amongst eurozone countries.

Although the European Central Bank (ECB) confirmed that it bought EUR 16.5 billion in eurozone government bonds in just over a week, with the buying providing major prop to the market, private buyers remain reluctant to renter the market. As a result of the ECB’s sterilised interventions bond markets have stabilised but the EUR is now taking the brunt of the pressure, a reversal of the situation at the beginning of the Greek crisis, when the EUR proved to be far more resilient. Reports that some large institutional investors have exited from Greek and Portuguese debt markets whilst others are positioning for a eurozone without Greece, Portugal and Spain, suggest that the ECB may have taken on more than it has bargained for in its attempts to prop up peripheral eurozone bond markets.

As was evident in the US March Treasury TICS report it appears that a lot of the outflows from Europe are finding their way into US markets. The data revealed that net long-term TIC flows (net US securities purchases by foreign investors) surged to $140.5 billion in March. The bulk of this flow consisted of safe haven buying of US Treasuries ($108.5 billion), although it was notable that securities flows into other asset classes were also strong especially agencies and corporate bonds, which recorded their biggest capital inflow since May 2008. Asian central banks also reversed their net selling of US Treasuries, with China investing the most into Treasuries since September 2009. Anecdotal evidence corroborates this, with central banks in Asia diversifying far less than they were just a few months ago.

This reversal of flows is unlikely to stop anytime soon. It is clear that enhanced austerity measures in the eurozone will result in weaker growth and earnings potential. This will play negatively on the EUR especially given expectations of a superior growth and earnings profile in the US. Evidence of implementation, action and a measure of success on the fiscal front will be necessary to begin the likely long process of turning confidence in the EUR around. This will likely take a long time to be forthcoming. EUR/USD has managed to recover after hitting a low of around 1.2235 but remains vulnerable to further weakness. The big psychological barrier of 1.20 looms followed by the EUR launch rate of around 1.1830.

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