Follow The Oracle

Many investors are probably wishing they had the psychic abilities of Paul the octopus. The mollusc once again gave the correct prediction, by picking Spain to beat the Netherlands to become the winner of the World Cup. This ability would have been particularly useful for currency forecasters, many of which have been wrong footed by the move higher in EUR/USD over recent weeks.

Confidence appeared to return to markets over the past week helped by a string of rate hikes in Asia from India, South Korea and Malaysia, and firm data including yet another consensus beating jobs report in Australia. An upward revision to global growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also helped, with the net result being an easing in double-dip growth concerns.

The good news culminated in a much stronger than forecast June trade surplus in China. However, China’s trade numbers will likely keep the pressure on for further CNY appreciation, and notably US Senators are still pushing ahead with legislation on China’s FX policy despite the US Treasury decision not to name China as a currency manipulator.

Political uncertainty on the rise again in Japan following the loss of control of the upper house of parliament by the ruling DPJ party. The JPY has taken a softer tone following the election and will likely remain under pressure. CFTC IMM speculative JPY positioning has increased but this has been met with significant selling interest by Japanese margin accounts who hold their biggest net long USD/JPY position since October 2009 according to Tokyo Financial Exchange (TFX) data.

In the absence of the prodigious abilities of an “oracle octopus” data and events this week will continue to show slowing momentum in G3 country growth indicators but not enough to warrant renewed double-dip concerns. Direction will be largely driven by US Q2 earnings. S&P 500 company earnings are expected to have increased 27% from a year ago according to Thomson Reuters.

There are several data releases of interest in the US this week but the main release is the retail sales report for June which is likely to record another drop over the month. Data and events in Europe include the Eurogroup finance ministers meeting, with markets looking for further insight into bank stress tests across the region. Early indications are positive but the scope of the tests remains the main concern. The July German ZEW survey will garner some interest and is likely to show a further slight decline in economic sentiment.

EUR/USD gains looked increasingly stretched towards the end of last week, as it slipped back from a high of around 1.2722. Technical resistance around 1.2740 will prove to be tough level to crack over coming days, with a pullback to support around 1.2479 more likely. CFTC IMM data reveals that short covering in EUR has been particularly sharp in the last week, with net short positions cut by over half, highlighting that the scope for further short covering is becoming more limited.

Conversely aggregate net USD long positions have fallen by over half in the last week as USD sentiment has soured, with longs at close to a three-month low. The scope for a further reduction in USD positioning is less significant, suggesting that selling pressure may abate.

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The Week Ahead

As last week progressed there was a clear deterioration in sentiment as growth worries crept back into the market psyche. It all started well enough, with a positive reaction to China’s de-pegging of the CNY but the euphoria faded as it became evident that there was still plenty of two-way risk on the CNY. A change in Prime Minister in Australia, which fuelled hopes of a resolution to a controversial mining tax, and an austere budget in the UK, were also key events. However, sentiment took a hit as the Fed sounded more cautious on the US economy in its FOMC statement.

The US Congress finalised a major regulatory reform bill towards the end of the week and markets, especially financial stocks, reacted positively as the bill appeared to give some concessions to banks and was not as severe as feared. However, equity market momentum has clearly faded against the background of renewed growth concerns including sprouting evidence of a double-dip in the US housing market as well as fresh worries about the European banking sector. As if to demonstrate this US Q1 GDP was duly revised lower once again, to a 2.7% annualised rate of growth.

The US Independence Day holiday and World Cup football tournament will likely keep liquidity thin in the run up to month and half year end. However, there is still plenty to digest this week including the all important employment report and consumer confidence data in the US. In Europe economic sentiment gauges, purchasing managers indices and the flash CPI estimate will be in focus. Elsewhere, Japan’s Tankan survey and usual slate of month end Japanese releases, Switzerland’s KoF leading indicator and Australian retail sales will be of interest.

On balance, economic data this week is unlikely to relieve growth concerns, with Eurozone, US and UK consumer and manufacturing confidence indicators likely to post broad based declines due to a host of factors. The data will further indicate a slowing in growth momentum following Q2 2010, with forward looking surveys turning lower, albeit gradually. Whilst a double-dip scenario still seems unlikely there can be no doubt that austerity measures and the waning of fiscal stimulus measures are beginning to weigh on growth prospects even if there is still plenty of optimism for emerging market and particularly Asian growth prospects.

This suggests that Q3 could turn into a period of heightened uncertainty in which equity markets and risk assets will struggle to gain traction. In addition to growth worries, some tensions in money markets remain in place whilst banking sector concerns seem to be coming back to the fore, especially in Europe and these factors will prevent a sustained improvement in risk appetite from taking place over the coming quarter. Some more clarity may come from the results of European stress tests but much will depend on just how stressful the tests are.

In the near term, the main focus of attention will be on the US June jobs report released at the end of the week. Non-farm payrolls are set to record a decline over the month due to a reversal in census hiring, with a consensus expectation of a 110k fall. Private sector hiring is likely to record a positive reading, however, suggesting some improvement in the underlying trend in jobs growth, albeit a very gradual one. Downside risks to consensus suggest plenty of scope for disappointment.

Interestingly, weaker US data of late, has managed to restrain the USD, suggesting that cyclical factors and not just risk aversion are beginning to play into FX movements. Notably the USD was on the back foot against a number of currencies as last week progressed. Even the beleaguered EUR managed to end the week well off its weekly low and close to where it closed the previous week whilst risk currencies such as the AUD and NZD as well as GBP also posted firm performances.

Perhaps some reversal of the optimism towards US recovery prospects give USD bulls some cause for concern, but pressure is likely to prove temporary, especially given that the US economy is still on course to outperform many other major economies. Over the short-term, especially ahead of the US jobs report markets are set to remain cautious with range trading likely to dominate in the week ahead, suggesting that EUR/USD is unlikely to breach the key level of 1.2500. GBP performance has been robust but even this currency is likely to make much headway above GBP/USD 1.5000, where there are likely to be plenty of sellers.

Euro Rally To Fade

It is not an easy time to forecast currencies. Just as many forecasters fought for the accolade of being the most bearish on the EUR and many others were forced to capitulate or risk falling behind the curve, EUR/USD has started to perk up. Similarly, commodity currencies and many emerging market currencies have bounced.

Perhaps the explanation of these moves is merely position adjustments as traders and investors square positions as they keep one eye on the World Cup or maybe its just fatigue after weeks of selling pressure. Either way, the fact that speculative USD market positioning is at a very high level, suggests there is plenty of scope to take profits on long USD positions.

There are various reasons to expect the calm to give way to renewed tensions, however. Public opposition to austerity plans in Europe, added to the prospects for slowing growth as the plans are implemented, in addition to banking sector concerns, suggest that the outlook for the EUR remains downbeat. These factors also point to the prospects of risk aversion rising over the coming weeks, reversing the recent rally in risk currencies.

Further out, the EUR’s travails will not be over quickly and in the wake of the implementation of austerity plans the EUR will struggle from the impact of relatively slower growth in the eurozone compared to the US and other countries. The EUR will continue to remain under pressure even as risk appetite improves and many risk currencies appreciate.

The interruption of risk as an FX determinant is likely to fade towards the end of the year and investors will then go back to differentiating on the basis of relative growth and interest rate dynamics, which will play well for the USD as US growth strengthens.

Relative growth differentials will also bode well for commodity currencies and there will be scope for plenty of upside in the AUD and NZD as growth strengthens. Both countries have benefited from firm demand in Asia and China in particular and this source of support will likely continue to be beneficial.

Funding currencies including JPY and CHF will likely weaken this year against the USD based on the likely improvement in risk appetite later this year. The outlook for the JPY will be particularly interesting in the wake of the change in Prime Minister in Japan, especially given the new PM’s preference for a weaker JPY and reflationary policies. USD/JPY will likely reach 100 by the end of the year.

GBP should not be seen in the same context as the EUR. Although the UK has got its own share of fiscal problems the new government appears to be moving quickly to mollify both investor and ratings agency concerns. The test will come with the reaction of the emergency budget on June 22nd but I suspect that the downside risk to GBP will be limited.

Unlike the EUR which is trading around “fair value”, GBP is highly undervalued. Arguably past GBP weakness puts the UK economy on a stronger recovery footing. Moreover, problems that Europe will face in implementing multi country austerity plans and widening growth divergence, will not be repeated in the UK. Overall, there is likely to be significant outperformance of GBP versus EUR over coming months

World Cup FX Positioning/Data Highlights

The market tone felt decidedly better over the course of the last week although it was difficult to tell if this was due to position squaring ahead of the World Cup football or a genuine improvement in sentiment. There was no particular event or data release that acted as a catalyst either, with the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE) meetings passing with little fanfare.

US data ended the week mixed, with retail sales disappointing in May but in contrast June consumer confidence beating expectations. Although questions about the pace of recovery remain, other data such as the Fed’s Beige Book suggest that recovery remains on track, sentiment echoed, albeit cautiously by Fed Chairman Bernanke last week.

Attention this week will centre on inflation data. Expected benign CPI readings will support the view that the Fed will take its time to raise interest rates. Speeches by the Fed’s Bullard, Plosser and Bernanke this week will be eyed for further clues on Fed thinking.

Central banks in Brazil and New Zealand hiked rates last week but this is not likely to be echoed this week. No change is likely from both the Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank although there will be plenty of attention on the SNB’s comments on the CHF following recent data showing a surge in FX reserves due to currency intervention. The BoJ is unlikely to announce anything new but perhaps some further detail on the loan support plan could be forthcoming.

Manufacturing data will also garner some attention, with the US June Empire and Philly Fed surveys and May industrial production on tap. All three reports will confirm the improving trend in manufacturing activity in the US. Housing data will look weaker, with starts set to pull back in starts in May following the expiry of government tax incentive programmes though permits are set to rise.

In Europe, the June German ZEW (econ sentiment) investor sentiment survey will likely slip slightly due to ongoing fiscal/debt worries but this will be countered by stronger domestic data. In any case the index remains at a high level and a slight drop is unlikely to derail markets.

GBP may find some support form upgrade of UK growth forecasts by the CBI to 1.3% for 2010 and relatively hawkish comments from the BoE’s Sentance in the weekend press warning that inflation is higher than expected, indicating that the Bank may need to hike rates sooner than expected.

Further GBP/USD direction will come from CPI and retail sales data this week as well as public borrowing figures and a report by the new Office of Budget Responsibility on the UK’s fiscal position ahead of the June 22 budget. A break above GBP/USD resistance around 1.4760 is unlikely to materialise.

Despite the many data releases this week, the overall tone is likely to be one of consolidation and reduced volatility in the days ahead. This may allow EUR/USD to gain some ground due to short covering, with the CFTC commitment of traders (IMM) report revealing a further increase in net short speculative positions last week, close to the record set a few weeks back, though we suspect that there will be strong resistance around 1.2227.

The fact that the IMM data revealed that net aggregate net USD long positions reached an all time high last week, highlights the potential for profit taking this week. USD/JPY will look to take out resistance around 92.55 but this looks unlikely unless the BoJ dishes up anything particularly dovish from its meeting.

When things are just not right

One knows when things aren’t quite right when a football team wins a game by using a hand to help score a goal rather than a foot.  In this case it was French striker Thierry Henry who helped France to qualify for the world cup at the expense of Ireland.  To English soccer fans this looks like decidedly similar situation to the “hand of god” goal scored by Diego Maradona during the 1986 World Cup. 

Similarly things don’t look quite right with markets at present and what began as a loss of momentum turned into a bit of a rout for US (Thursday) and Asian stocks (Friday).  In turn risk appetite has taken a turn for the worse whilst the USD is on a firmer footing.  Profit taking or simply repatriation at year end may explain some of the market moves but doubts about the pace and magnitude of economic recovery are playing a key role.

Ireland has called for a replay of the soccer game but markets may not get such an opportunity as sentiment sours into year end.  Markets chose to ignore some relatively positive news in the form a  stronger than forecast increase in the Philly Fed manufacturing survey and the improving trend in US jobless claims leaving little else to support confidence. 

The only event of note today was the Bank of Japan policy decision.   Interest rates were kept unchanged at 0.1%.  Given that official concerns about deflation are intensifying interest rates are unlikely to go up for a long while and we only look for the first rate hike to take place in Q2 2011.  The BoJ may however, be tempted to buy more government bonds in the future if deflation concerns increase further.   USD/JPY was unmoved on the decision, with the currency pair continuing to gyrate around the 89.00 level though higher risk aversion suggests a firmer JPY bias. 

In the short term increased risk aversion will play positively for the USD against most currencies, especially against high beta currencies such as the AUD, NZD and GBP.   Asian currencies will also be on the back foot due to profit taking on the multi-month gains in these currencies.

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