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.

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GBP troubles, KRW too weak

The Fed FOMC minutes for the January meeting revealed that behind the unanimous vote to leave policy settings unchanged there was some unease about the completion of QE2. Nonetheless, the USD was left weaker given the Fed’s sanguine view on inflation and worries about unemployment. Inflation data will garner most market attention today but the fact that the core rate of CPI inflation is expected to remain well below the Fed’s preferred level could undermine the USD and add a further barrier to the USD’s recovery so far in February. Jobless claims data will also be of interest given the sharp drop last week. Another firm outcome will help to dispel worries about job market recovery.

As warned in my last post, downside risks to GBP were high given the long GBP speculative positioning overhang and hawkish expectations for the BoE Quarterly Inflation Report. In the event the Report revealed a downward growth forecast revision and an upward inflation forecast revision but importantly showed some reluctance to play into market expectations of an early UK policy rate hike. Following on from a weaker than expected UK January jobs report in which unemployment increased, GBP was hit on both counts. GBP/USD is unlikely to veer far from the 1.6000 level, but with markets reassessing interest rate expectations downside risks are beginning to open up.

News yesterday that Moody’s ratings agency has placed Australia and New Zealand’s major banks on review for possible downgrades went down like a lead balloon but once again AUD and NZD showed their usual resilience and acted as if little has happened. AUD and NZD have weakened since the turn of the year. Weaker data and a paring back in policy tightening expectations have contributed to the weaker performance of the AUD and NZD, but markets have gone too far in scaling back the timing and magnitude of interest rate hikes, suggesting that both currencies may bounce back as interest rate expectations become more hawkish.

Asian currencies continue to register mixed performances largely influenced by capital flows. Most equity markets in the region have registered outflows so far in 2011, with the exception of Taiwan and Vietnam. This has been reflected in Asian FX performance, with the strongest performer being the IDR, but its gains have only been around 0.72% versus USD, coinciding with the fact that it has registered some of the least capital outflows this year. Interestingly the worst performing currency has been the THB, one of last year’s star performers. Korea has also registered strong equity capital outflows but this will not persist and a resumption of inflows taken together with positive fundamentals and higher interest rates will boost the KRW this year.

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.

Drastic Action Needed

There has been no let up in pressure on eurozone markets and consequently risk aversion continues to increase. The failure of Ireland’s bailout package to stem the haemorrhaging in eurozone bond markets highlights the difficulties in finding in a lasting solution and worsening liquidity conditions in several eurozone bond markets highlights the urgency to act.

Indeed, if spreads continue to widen as they have since late October, by early to mid 2011, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian Euribor spreads would be higher than the EFSF loan spread. In the (admittedly extreme) case that sovereigns could not raise money in the market, peripherals would run out of money early in 2011. Policy makers will try to not let the situation get so out of hand but what can be done to stem the damage?

The European Central Bank (ECB) may be forced to delay its exit strategy by maintaining unlimited liquidity allotments to banks into next year and/or implement further liquidity support measures. The ECB meeting will be closely scrutinized for details, with ECB President Trichet having to adjust policy accordingly. A further option could be for the ECB to step up its bond buying programme which may provide some relief to peripheral eurozone bond markets and the EUR.

Whether this offers a lasting solution however, is debatable. The risk of action by the ECB tomorrow may fuel some caution in the market towards selling the EUR further in the short term and could even prompt some short EUR covering around the meeting which could see EUR/USD regain a sustainable hold above 1.3000 again but this may be temporary, offering better levels to sell.

Meanwhile, speculation of a break up of the eurozone into a core euro and a peripheral euro has intensified given the growing divergence in growth and competitiveness across the region. Such speculation looks far fetched. The eurozone project has been politically driven from the start and over the last 60 years or so internal economic strains have been papered over by politicians. The political will is likely to remain in place even if the divergence in fundamentals across Europe has continued to widen.

Bond market sentiment was not helped by the fact that S&P put Portugal’s ratings on creditwatch negative citing downward economic pressure and concerns over the government’s credit worthiness. Importantly S&P still expects Portugal to remain at investment grade if downgraded. Note that Portugal’s central bank highlighted that the country’s banking sector faced “intolerable” risk unless the government implements planned austerity measures.

In contrast the US story is looking increasingly positive, highlighting that the USD’s strength is not merely a reaction to EUR weakness but more likely inherent and broad improvement in USD sentiment. US consumer confidence, Chicago PMI and the Milwaukee PMI beat forecasts in November, continuing the trend of consensus beating data releases over recent weeks.
Although this does not change the outlook for quantitative easing (QE) as the Fed remains focused on core CPI and the unemployment rate, the data paints an encouraging picture of the economy.

Bernanke Boost

Last week ended with a downward revision to US Q2 GDP. The data clarified that growth momentum going into Q3 was indeed quite weak though it probably didn’t take the GDP revision to tell us this nugget of information, something that has been evident from the run of weak data over recent months.

Softer growth in Q2 placed particular attention on the Jackson Hole speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke in which he acknowledged the slowing in the pace of growth, but also forecast a moderate economic recovery in H2 2010. Importantly if the Fed is proven wrong he noted the FOMC would undertake unconventional (quantitative easing) QE II measures if needed.

The net impact on Bernanke’s speech and the smaller than expected downward revision to US Q2 GDP was to provide a boost to risk appetite. Sentiment will at least begin this week on a positive note in the knowledge that the Fed stands ready to act although double dip fears are far from over.

One trigger for Fed action will be a further deterioration in job market conditions and markets will pay close attention to the August US jobs report at the end of the week. Bloomberg consensus estimates forecast a 100 drop in payrolls, with private payrolls up 47k and the unemployment rate edging higher to 9.6%. Such an outcome would do little to boost confidence in a jobs market recovery.

The week begins with all eyes on Japan however, with an emergency Bank of Japan (BoJ) meeting in focus. USD/JPY has already jumped higher on the belief that concrete action will emerge to weaken the JPY. The risk of disappointment is high and at most the BoJ will announce measures to extend loans to banks. A lack of other action especially in the form of FX intervention alongside a likely increase in risk aversion once the Bernanke bounce wares off, will result in a renewed USD/JPY move lower, with a breach of 85.00 likely. As seen in the chart below a decisive turn in the Japanese stocks will be a key factor in helping to eventually drive USD/JPY higher.

Two other central bank meetings of note this week are the European Central Bank (ECB) and Sweden’s Riksbank meetings on Thursday. No change in policy by the ECB will be of little surprise but the release of new staff projections, with growth likely to be revised up in 2010 but left unchanged for 2011, will be of interest. Developments regarding open market operations will also be of attention. In contrast, the Riksbank is widely expected to hike rates by 25bps on the back of a firming economy and house price inflation.

A UK holiday today will likely keep liquidity thin and as noted above risk currencies including AUD, NZD and CAD as well as Asian currencies will start the week firmer but will struggle to hold gains as the week progresses. EUR/USD has benefited little from improved risk appetite and will have a hard time this week making much any headway although potential EUR/CHF buying from the SNB may give some, albeit limited support.

A renewed downside move to support around EUR/USD 1.2455 remains on the cards in the short term. Overall USD sentiment has become less negative as reflected in the CFTC IMM positioning data in contrast to a renewed deterioration in EUR speculative sentiment. We look for more of the same.

Q2 Economic Review: Double-Dip Recession or Prolonged Recovery?

I was recently interviewed by Sital Ruparelia for his website dedicated to “Career & Talent Management Solutions“, on my views on my view on the Q2 Economic Review: Double-Dip Recession or Prolonged Recovery?

Sital is a regular guest on BBC Radio offering career advice and job search tips to listeners. Being a regular contributor and specialist for several leading on line resources including eFinancial Careers and Career Hub (voted number 1 blog by ‘HR World’), Sital’s career advice has also been featured in BusinessWeek online.

Please see below to read my article

Since we last discussed the economic outlook at the end of quarter 1, much has happened and unfortunately there has not been a great deal of positive news. I retained a cautiously optimistic outlook for economic recovery for the Q1 Economic Review: elections, recovery and underemployment discussion article, but highlighted that recovery would be a long and drawn-out process, with western economies underperforming Asian economies.

The obstacles to recovery discussed then continue to apply now, including consumers paying down debt, high unemployment, tight credit conditions and weak confidence.

Click here to read the rest…

The Pain Of A Stronger Swiss Franc

Volatility and increasingly large market swings are characterizing current market conditions. A warning by Fitch on the UK’s “formidable” fiscal challenge, concerns about Bulgaria’s public finance statistics and a massive public sector strike in Spain, combined to fuel another bout of risk aversion.

Hungary’s government attempted to diffuse worries about its finances, with the country’s Prime Minister listing measures including cutting public pay and prohibiting mortgages denominated in foreign currencies, in order to hit the 3.8% of GDP budget deficit target. There was also some good news in the US, with small business confidence (NFIB) rising to its highest level since September 2008 whilst ABC consumer confidence edged higher.

The US Beige Book and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony on the US economy to Congress, mark the highlights today. The Beige Book is set to reveal further signs of economic recovery but with limited inflation pressures. Bernanke is likely to maintain a similar tone to comments he made yesterday, highlighting a “moderate” economic recovery, with unemployment likely to stay “high for a while”. His testimony will be scrutinized for the timing of rate hikes, and any elaboration on his comments about rates rising before the economy is at full employment.

Against the background of the many and varied uncertainties still afflicting markets maintain a sell on rallies view on risk trades is still the best option. EUR/USD will struggle to breach resistance around 1.2010 and remains susceptible to test support around 1.1826. GBP/USD could target fresh lows in a “negative reversal”, with potential to head back down to 1.3996.

Confidence has plummeted to extreme lows and it will be several months before appetite for risk trades returns. The AUD and NZD as well as many Asian currencies will struggle over the interim period before their appreciation trend finally resumes.

In contrast to the weakening of risk currencies, CHF strength is showing little sign of letting up. Switzerland recorded a massive 50% jump in FX reserves in May to CHF 232 billion from CHF 153 billion in April. This is not usually market moving data but the scale of the jump in reserves is huge and it is not just due to valuation changes. The Swiss National Bank (SNB’s) effective abandonment of defending a particular level in EUR/CHF turned into more a smoothing operation but this did not stop the bank from massive FX interventions. Despite the interventions EUR/CHF dropped by 0.8% over the month.

Aside from alleviating upward pressure on the CHF the interventions had an indirect effect of reducing the pain of holders of CHF mortgages. E.g. around 30% of Hungary’s bank loans and 60% of mortgages are denominated in CHF but countries across Europe have plenty of CHF denominated loans, especially Austria. Although Hungary announced steps to meet its deficit targets its woes are far from over.

The CHF has appreciated by around 3% since the beginning of May versus HUF, exacerbating the pain for CHF borrowers in the country. The fact that CHF strength shows no sign of letting up on the back of strong data and safe haven flows, the pain for these borrowers will only add to the problems for banks and borrowers alike in Europe.

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