Which is the ugliest currency?

The contest of the uglies has once again been set in motion in FX markets as last Friday’s weak US jobs report, which revealed a paltry 18k increase in June payrolls, downward revisions to past months and a rise in the unemployment rate, actually left the USD unperturbed. Europe’s problems outweighed the negative impact of more signs of a weak US economy, leaving the EUR as a bigger loser.

The USD’s resilience was even more impressive considering the drop in US bond yields in the wake of the data. However, news over the weekend that talks over the US budget deficit and debt ceiling broke down as Republicans pulled out of discussions, will leave USD bulls with a sour taste in their mouth.

Should weak jobs recovery dent enthusiasm for the USD? To the extent that it may raise expectations of the need for more Fed asset purchases, it may prove to be an obstacle for the USD. However, there is sufficient reason to look for a rebound in growth in H2 2011 while in any case the Fed has set the hurdle at a high level for more quantitative easing (QE).

Fed Chairman Bernanke’s reaction and outlook will be gleaned from his semi-annual testimony before the House (Wed) although he will likely stick to the script in terms of US recovery hopes for H2. This ought to leave the USD with little to worry about. There will be plenty of other data releases this week to chew on including trade data, retail sales, CPI and PPI inflation and consumer confidence as well as the kick off to the Q2 earnings season.

Fresh concerns in Europe, this time with contagion spreading to Italy left the EUR in bad shape and unable to capitalise on the soft US jobs report. In Italy high debt levels, weak growth, political friction and banking concerns are acting in unison. The fact that there is unlikely to be a final agreement on second Greek bailout package at today’s Eurogroup meeting will act as a further weight on the EUR.

Discussions over debt roll over plans, the role of the private sector and the stance of ratings agencies will likely drag on, suggesting that the EUR will not find any support over coming days and will more likely lose more ground as the week progresses. If these issues were not sufficiently worrisome, the release of EU wide bank stress tests on Friday will fuel more nervousness. Against this background EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a drop to technical support around 1.4102.

The Bank of Japan is the only major central bank to decide on interest rates this week but an expected unchanged policy decision tomorrow is unlikely to lead to any JPY reaction. In fact there appears to be little to move the JPY out of its current tight range at present. USD/JPY continues to be the most correlated currency pair with 2-year bond yield differentials and the fact that the US yield advantage has dropped relative to Japan has led to USD/JPY once again losing the 81.0 handle.

However, as reflected in the CFTC IMM data the speculative market is still holding a sizeable long position in JPY, which could result in a sharp drop in the currency should US yields shift relatively higher, as we expect over coming months. In the short-term USD/JPY is likely to be well supported around 80.01.

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Central bank decisions and US payrolls in focus

The USD’s troubles are far from over. Data and events this week will do little to stop the rot. As US Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke made clear last week the Fed is committed to completing its asset purchase programme by the end of June though there is plenty of debate about what comes after. Reduced growth forecasts and the Fed’s view that price pressures are “transitory” have been sufficient to keep the USD on its knees.

The weaker than expected reading for Q1 US GDP growth at 1.8% QoQ clearly did nothing to alleviate pressure on the USD even though it is widely believed that the soft growth outcome will prove fleeting, with recovery set to pick up pace over the coming months. In truth much will depend on the trajectory for oil prices, especially as petrol prices in the US verge on the psychologically important $4 per gallon mark. Even higher energy prices could dent growth further but lower or stable prices will keep the recovery on track.

The highlight in this holiday shortened week for many countries this week is the US April jobs report at the tail end of the week. Estimates centre on around a 200k gain in payrolls but forecasts will be refined with the release of the ADP private sector jobs report and ISM manufacturing survey earlier in the week. The unemployment rate may prove sticky and will likely remain at 8.8%, a disappointment to those looking for a quicker recovery. The elevated unemployment rate will only reinforce expectations that the Fed will not be quick to reverse policy, with the USD continuing to suffer as a result.

Central bank meetings will be plentiful this week, with the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE) likely to garner most attention. Recent data in the Eurozone has provided further evidence of growth divergence between North and South, but the EUR has remained resilient to this as well as to increased concerns about the periphery. This make the ECB’s job even tougher than usual when it meets this week and it is unlikely that the Bank will hike rates again so soon, especially given the strength of the EUR. Nonetheless, Trichet will continue to sound hawkish, limiting any damage to the EUR (if any) of no move in policy rates.

Similarly the Bank of England will also remain on the sidelines though this should come as little surprise in the wake of disappointing data recently and a surprise drop in inflation, albeit to still well above the BoE’s target. GBP has made up ground against a generally weak USD but judged against other currencies it has been an underperformer as expectations of monetary tightening have been pared back. Finally, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is set to remain on hold, but a hike over coming months remains likely even with the AUD at such a high level. Quite frankly although the USD is looking increasingly oversold there is nothing this week that would suggest it will recover quickly.

ECB to Hike, BoJ, BoE & RBA on Hold

The better than expected March US jobs report will likely help to shift the debate further towards the hawkish camp in the Fed. There is little this week to match the potency of payrolls in terms of market moving data this week. Instead attention will focus on a raft of Fed speakers over coming days as well as the minutes of the March 15 FOMC meeting.

This week’s Fed speakers include Lockhart, Evans, Bernanke, Kocherlakota, Plosser and Lacker. Of these only Lockhart and Lacker are non voters. Given the intense focus on recent Fed comments FX markets will be on the lookout for anything that hints a broader Fed support for a quicker hike to interest rates and/or reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet.

In any case the USD may struggle to make much headway ahead of an anticipated European Central Bank (ECB) rate hike of 25 basis point on Thursday. Much will depend on the press statement, however. If the ECB merely validates market expectations of around 75bps of policy rate hikes this year the EUR will struggle to rally.

It may also be possible that once the ECB meeting is out of the way the EUR may finally be susceptible to pressure related to ongoing peripheral tensions. Last week the outcome of the Irish bank stress tests, and political vacuum in Portugal ahead of elections set for June 5 were well absorbed by the EUR but it is questionable whether the dichotomy between widening peripheral bond spreads and the EUR can continue.

The Tankan survey in Japan released today unsurprisingly revealed a deterioration in sentiment. The survey will provide important clues for the Bank of Japan (BoJ) at its meeting on April 6 & 7th. Although a shift in Japan’s ultra easy monetary policy is unlikely whilst strong liquidity provision is set to continue, pressure to do more will likely grow. This will be accentuated by a likely downward revision in the economic outlook by the BoJ.

The JPY will not take much direction from this meeting. Nonetheless, its soft tone may continue helped by foreign securities outflows (particularly out of bonds), with USD/JPY eyeing the 16 December high around 84.51. Speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals a sharp deterioration in JPY sentiment as the currency evidence that finally the currency maybe regaining its mantle of funding currency.

It is still too early for the Bank of England to hike rates despite elevated inflation readings and MPC members are likely to wait for the May Quarterly Inflation Report before there is decisive shift in favour of raising policy rates. Even then, members will have to grapple with the fact that economic data remains relatively downbeat as reflected in the weaker than expected March manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) data.

Today’s PMI construction data will likely paint a similar picture. The fact that a rate hike is not expected by the market will mean GBP should not suffer in the event of a no change decision by the BoE this week but instead will find more direction from a host of data releases including industrial production. GBP has come under growing pressure against the EUR since mid February and a test of the 25 October high of 0.89415 is on the cards this week.

Finally, congratulations to the Indian cricket team who won a well deserved victory in the Cricket World Cup final over the weekend. The celebrations by Indians around the world will go on for a long while yet.

US Dollar On A Slippery Path

The USD has been a on a slippery path over recent weeks, weighed down by adverse interest rate differentials despite improving US economic data. Adding to the run of encouraging US data releases the February jobs report revealed a 192k increase in jobs and a drop in the unemployment rate to 8.9%.

In particular the Fed’s dovish tone highlights that whilst asset purchases under QE2 will stop at the end of June, the failure to hit the Fed’s dual mandate of maximum employment and stable prices, implies that the Fed Funds rate will not be hiked for a long while yet. This dovish slant has undermined the USD to the extent that USD speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data dropped to all time low in the week to 1 March. There is certainly plenty of scope for short-covering but the market is no mood to buy the USD yet.

This week’s releases will provide less direction, with a slight widening in the trade deficit likely in January, a healthy gain in February retail sales and a small drop in the preliminary reading of March Michigan sentiment.

In contrast, even the generally hawkish market expectations for the European Central Bank (ECB) proved too timid at last week’s Council meeting as Trichet & Co. strongly implied via “strong vigilance” that the refi rate would be hiked by 25bps in April. EUR/USD lurched higher after the ECB bombshell breaking the psychologically important 1.4000 barrier but appeared to lose some momentum at this level. Should EUR/USD sustain a break of 1.4000, the next level of resistance is at 1.4281 (November high), with support seen around 1.3747.

The lack of major eurozone data releases this week, with only industrial production data in Germany and France of interest, suggests that EUR may consolidate over the short-term with the main interest on the informal Heads of State meeting at the end of the week to determine whether credible plans can be drawn up to restore confidence in the periphery.

This week it is the turn of the Bank of England (BoE) to decide on monetary policy but unlike the ECB we do not expect any surprises with an unchanged decision likely. Further clues will only be available in the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes on 23 March. However, markets may be nervous given that it could feasibly only take another two voters aside from the three hawkish dissenters last month, to result in a policy rate hike. Notably one possible hawkish dissenter, Charles Bean did not sound overly keen on higher rates in a speech last week, a factor that weighed on GBP alongside some weaker service sector Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) data.

UK manufacturing data will be the main data highlight of the calendar but this will be overshadowed by the BoE meeting. GBP/USD could continue to lag the EUR and given a generally bullish EUR backdrop, our preferred method of playing GBP downside remains via a long EUR/GBP position.

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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Egypt Unrest Hits Risk Trades

Recent weeks have seen a real contrast in policy and growth across various economies. A case in point was the surprise drop in UK GDP in Q4 contrasting sharply with the solid (albeit less than forecast) rise in US Q4 2010 GDP. The resilience of the US consumer was particularly evident in the data. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) hawkish slant as reflected in comments from President Trichet compared to the dovish pitch of the Fed FOMC is another clear contrast for markets to ponder.

The ECB’s hawkish tone gave the EUR a lift but expectations of an early Eurozone rate hike looks premature. Although Eurozone inflation data (Monday) will reveal a further rise in CPI above the ECB’s target, to around 2.4% in January, this will not equate to a policy rate hike anytime soon. This message is likely to be echoed at this week’s ECB meeting where policy will be characterised as “appropriate”.

Whilst monetary tightening expectations look overdone in the Eurozone the same can be said for hopes of an expansion in the EU bailout fund (EFSF). Indeed, the fact that EU Commissioner Rehn appeared to pour cold water over an expansion in the size of the fund could hit the EUR and the currency may find itself struggling to extend gains over coming weeks especially if interest rate expectations return to reality too, with a move to EUR/USD 1.4000 looking far harder to achieve than it did only a few days ago.

It’s worth noting that a renewed widening in peripheral debt spreads will also send an ominous signal for the EUR. Against this background the EU Council meeting on February 4 will be in focus but any expectation of a unified policy resolution will be disappointed.

However, markets perhaps should not solely focus on peripheral Europe as the downgrading of Japan’s credit ratings last week highlights. Warnings about US credit ratings also demonstrate that the US authorities will need to get their act together to find a solution to reversing the unsustainable path of the US fiscal deficit, something that was not particularly apparent in last week’s State of the Union Address.

Last week ended with a risk off tone filtering through markets as unrest in Egypt provoked a sell-off in risk assets whilst worries about oil supplies saw oil prices spike. Gold surged on safe haven demand too. This week, markets will focus on events in the Middle East but there will be thinner trading conditions as Chinese New Year holidays result in a shortened trading week in various countries in Asia.

The main release of the week is the US January jobs report at the end of the week. Regional job market indicators and the trend in jobless claims point to a 160k gain in January although the unemployment rate will likely edge higher. Final clues to the payrolls outcome will be deemed from the ISM manufacturing confidence survey and ADP private sector jobs report this week. Whilst the January jobs report is unlikely to alter expectations for Fed policy (given the elevated unemployment rate) the USD may continue to benefit from rising risk aversion.

Euro Problems Intensify

Following the bullish build up and increasingly lofty expectations for the US December jobs report the actual outcome was disappointing, at least on the headline reading. Non farm payrolls rose 103k which in reality was not that much less than initial forecasts but the real consensus was somewhat higher following the robust ADP private sector jobs report earlier in the week. There was some mitigation in the 70k upward revisions to October and November and surprisingly large decline in the unemployment rate to 9.4%. Consequently the market impact was less severe than it could have been and even the USD ended higher on the day.

Nonetheless, the data provided a dose of reality to markets’ optimistic expectations and this was reinforced by Fed Chairman Bernanke in testimony on Friday. He highlighted that it will take “considerable time” before the unemployment rate drops to a normal level, which could threaten recovery. Even the drop in the unemployment rate revealed in the December is report is vulnerable to a reversal given it was in part due to a drop in the labour force. This reality provided support to bond markets which may undermine the USD given the drop in bond yields. However, the USD’s anti-EUR credentials suggest that it will remain resilient.

Eurozone’s woes continued to heat up last week as the holiday season relief proved temporary. Stress in peripheral debt markets increased despite buying from the ECB last week and faced with debt sales in Italy, Portugal and Spain this week the pressure is likely to continue over coming days. Whether its worries about a resolution to funding issues and investor haircuts and/or the growing divergence in growth across the eurozone, the EUR continues to look vulnerable in the absence of any resolution to these issues. Having easily slipped below its 200-day moving average EUR/USD will eye support around 1.2767.

US data this week will look upbeat and provide more support for the USD, with December retail sales likely to record a healthy increase both on the headline and ex-autos readings as indicated by strong holiday sales. Similarly industrial production will reveal a solid gain whilst the Beige Book will highlight that economic conditions across the Federal Reserve districts, have continued to improve. The weak spot will remain housing but despite this consumer spending and sentiment are likely to be reported as resilient. The Beige Book is unlikely to reveal much of an inflation threat despite higher commodity prices. This will be echoed in the core CPI reading this week.

Although headline inflation in the eurozone breached the 2.0% threshold in December the ECB is unlikely to use it as an excuse to move towards tighter monetary conditions any time soon. The ECB meeting this week will nonetheless likely note the increase in various inflation gauges in President Trichet’s press statement. Most attention will be focused on any comments that Trichet makes regarding peripheral bond strains. In reality there is little that he can say that will alter market sentiment. Whilst an ongoing commitment to buy debt will help on the margin it will do little to stem the growing tide of negative sentiment towards eurozone assets.

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