The Italian Job

Italy looks too big to rescue yet is too big to fail. The country has around EUR 1.9 trillion in public debt (around 5 times that of Greece) and is the third largest country in the eurozone. Therefore it cannot be as easily dealt with as Greece.

Italy needs to raise around EUR 18 billion per month to cover its budget deficit and bond redemptions and with a continued increase in yields (hitting close to 7.5% for 10 year bonds) borrowing costs are rising sharply and fast becoming unsustainable. Higher collateral haircuts on Italian debt are adding to the pressure.

Although Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has said he will step down in the wake of reform measures to be voted on by the Italian parliament the vote on the measures may not take place for weeks. Moreover, Berlusconi may attempt to seek re-election after stepping down, which could bring the situation back to square one.

In the meantime speculation that Italy may be the next country to need to a bailout will intensify. However, with only around EUR 270 billion remaining in the EFSF bailout fund and details of how the fund will be leveraged to a planned EUR 1 trillion still lacking, doubts about whether it will have sufficient resources will grow. Press reports that Germany and France have begun talks to break up the eurozone due to fears that Italy will be too big to rescue will only add to the malaise.

Focus over the short term will turn to today’s 12 month auction of EUR 5 billion in Italy. Last month’s 12 month auction saw an average yield of 3.57% but this time around yields could rise above 6%. Worryingly it appears that even with the European Central Bank (ECB) buying Italian debt it has been insufficient to prevent yield rising.

In any case, given the ECB’s reluctance to become lender of the last resort to European peripherals, any support from this direction will be limited. Against this background the EUR remains highly vulnerable to a further drop. Indeed, the EUR’s recent resilience looks all the more misplaced. A test of the 4 October low around EUR/USD 1.3146 is on the cards over coming days.

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Risk aversion spikes

Increased risk aversion overnight in the wake of escalating Middle East tensions gave the USD some support but overall the USD index is gradually drifting towards its early November low around 75.631. The antithesis of USD weakness is strength in most other major currencies.

The USD is being undermined by relatively dovish expectations for US interest rates relative to elsewhere and last night’s semi annual testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the US Senate did nothing to alter this tone, with Bernanke maintaining the emphasis on subdued inflation and elevated unemployment.

The USD index itself has a high (0.82) 3-month correlation with US interest rate futures and over recent weeks as the implied yield has dropped, the USD has lost ground. The prospects of higher US bond yields may eventually provide the USD with support, especially given the prospect of substantial short-covering but in the near term the USD is likely to remain under pressure.

The upbeat run of US data highlights another source of USD support over the medium term, given the likely outperformance of the US economy over coming months. Yesterday’s ISM manufacturing survey and vehicle sales data lend support to this view. Moreover, the rise in employment component of the ISM supports the view of at least a 195k increase in February payrolls.

The Fed’s Beige Book tonight and February ADP jobs report will not alter the USD’s trajectory. The Beige Book is unlikely to reveal anything to worry the Fed in terms of inflation risks although will probably reveal further signs of improved activity. The ADP report will give important clues for Friday’s February non-farm payrolls data although it’s worth noting that last month’s report was way off the mark. In any case neither release is likely to prevent a further drop in the USD.

EUR is a clear beneficiary of expectations of tighter monetary policy by the ECB and the widening interest rate (futures implied yield) differential between the US and eurozone has given the EUR plenty of support recently as reflected in the high correlation with EUR/USD. Further support to the hawkish market stance was given by the upward revision to eurozone 2011 growth and inflation forecasts by the EU. The fact that eurozone inflation increased to 2.4% YoY in February also reinforced expectations of ECB tightening sooner than later.

The ECB press conference following the council meeting tomorrow will likely shape such expectations further, the EUR has already priced in a hawkish ECB stance, limiting the prospects of further appreciation. Notably EUR/USD has failed to break resistance at its year high around 1.3861, which will prove to be a formidable cap in the short-term.

In contrast, the RBA has poured cold water over expectations of further policy rate hikes in Australia. The policy statement following yesterday’s decision to keep the cash rate on hold pointed to an extended pause in the months ahead. Despite this and perhaps because markets have already pared back Australian interest rate expectations AUD rebounded quite smartly from its post meeting low and despite some overnight weakness due to increased risk aversion it will soon verge on a break of resistance at 1.0257.

AUD/NZD has continued to charge ahead having hit a multi-year high above 1.3600. NZD underperformance has been exacerbated by the impact of the recent earthquake, with growth expectations for this year having been sharply revised lower and growing speculation of an interest rate cut. Indeed, such speculation was given further fuel by comments by NZ Prime Minister Key who noted he would welcome a policy rate cut. Nonetheless, my quantitative AUD/NZD model suggests that the cross looks over-extended at current levels, whilst relative speculative positioning supports this view.

FX sensitivity to yield

It’s all about yield. The back up in US bond yields in reaction to the US tax compromise from the Obama administration has been particularly sharp. US 10 year bond yields jumped around 35bps this week prior to a small correction in yields overnight whilst 2s were up 21bps. US bond yields are now back where they were in June, a fact that makes a mockery out of the Fed’s attempts to drive bond yields lower via quantitative easing (QE). Yields elsewhere increased too but by a smaller degree whilst equity market sentiment has been dampened by the rise in global yields although US stocks still ended higher overnight.

There is plenty of commentary discussing the impact on currencies of the move in bond yields so it’s worth looking in more detail how sensitive FX markets have been to yield. The most sensitive currencies i.e. those with the highest 3-month correlations with relative bond yield differentials (2 year) are the AUD/USD, EUR/USD, and of course USD/JPY. However, there is less sensitivity to gyrations in 10 year yields with no currency pair registering a statistically significant correlation with 10-year bond yield differentials over the past 3-months.

Assuming that US bond yields continue to push higher into 2011, with much lager increases in both nominal and yields expected, this means that AUD, EUR and JPY will face the most pressure relative to the USD. Moreover, the stimulus measures agreed by the US administration will likely lead to many analysts penciling in higher growth forecasts over 2011 whilst reducing the prospects of QE3 from taking place, all of which is USD positive. I still retain a degree of caution in Q1 2011, especially with regard to a potential bounce in EUR, especially if the ECB becomes more aggressive in its bond buying, but even so, any EUR rally is likely to prove termporary.

The impact of higher US yields on the AUD may be more limited however, despite the high correlation with relative bond yields, as Australian bond yields are also likely to rise somewhat given the resilience of its economy. This was clearly demonstrated by Australian November employment data released overnight revealing yet another consensus beating outcome of +54.6k, with all the gains coming from full time employment. Against the background of a generally firm USD, the best way to play AUD resilience is via the NZD, with the currency pair likely break through resistance around 1.3220 (21 October high).

US dollar and equity gyrations

Although there appears to be some consolidation at present the USD remains on a steady downward path and is likely to continue to face a combination of both cyclical and structural negative forces.  Cyclical pressure will come from the extremely easy monetary policy stance of the Fed as well as the ongoing improvement in risk appetite. The structural pressure on the USD continues to come from the diversification of new FX reserve flows (mainly from Asian central banks) as well as concerns about the reserve value of the USD in the wake of massive US fiscal and monetary stimulus.

Although risk aversion is no longer as correlated with the USD as it was a few months ago there is no doubt that the USD is still highly sensitive to equity market movements. Correlations between the USD index and the S&P 500 are consistently high (and negative) over 1M, 3M and 6M time periods. The relationship reveals just how closely the fortunes of the USD are tied to the gyrations in equity markets.  

Much will therefore depend on the shape of US Q3 earnings. The fact that the majority of earnings released so far have beaten expectations has provided equities with more fuel whilst the USD has come under greater pressure. Should as is likely the trend in earnings continue to beat forecasts the USD is likely to weaken further, pushing through key resistance levels.   In particular, a sustained break above EUR/USD 1.50 could see a swift move substantially higher, with little in the way of technical resistance on the way up to 1.60

The real test will come when the lofty expectations for economic recovery match the reality of only sub-par growth in the months ahead. In the meantime, the firmer tone to global equity markets may encourage capital outflows from the US into foreign markets by investors who had repatriated huge amounts of capital during the crisis.

As risk appetite improves, the hunt for yield will intensify. The USD has easily taken over the mantle from the JPY as funding currency of choice for investors, pointing to further pressure on the USD. The timing of monetary policy reversal in the US will be crucial for the USD but it is highly unlikely that the Fed will hike rates next year.

As would be expected in this hunt for yield interest rate differentials are beginning to show a growing influence in driving currencies as the influence of risk appetite begins to wane.  The prospect of US interest rates remaining at a low level for a long time does not bode well for the USD, at least until markets begin to price in higher US rates which is at least a few months away.

Where will interest rates go up next?

Following the decision by the Reserve Bank of Australia to raise interest rates attention has swiftly turned to which central bank will move next. Indeed, there has been a reassessment of global interest rate decisions following Australia’s move. The hike in Australia is unlikely, however, to be quickly followed by the US, Japan, Europe or UK where policy is set to remain highly accommodative for long while.

Attention will however, turn to the Bank of Korea as well as the RBNZ and Norges Bank. In particular, the Norges Bank may be the next to hike when it meets on October 28. Norway has already appears to be priming markets for a rate hike. The RBNZ is likely to be slower to hike given the still slow pace of recovery in New Zealand and comfortable inflation backdrop.

The impact on currencies is not straightforward as the bigger influence on currency markets throughout the crisis has been risk appetite rather than interest rates. However, the influence of risk on currencies is beginning to wane and although interest rates have not been a major driver of currencies over recent months the move by the RBA likely accelerates the process of yield re-emerging as a key currency driver.

This is a big problem for the US dollar given that the Fed is unlikely to be quick to raise interest rates even if quantitative easing is withdrawn sooner. This means that the dollar will suffer from a growing yield disadvantage as interest rate hikes are priced in elsewhere. Taken together with improving risk appetite as reflected in the resilience of global equity markets, the main casualty will be the dollar, hit both from a yield and risk appetite perspective.

Risk currencies and those currencies with the greater prospect of higher rates will do well meaning further upside for the Australian dollar and New Zealand dollar as well as the Norwegian krone. Asian currencies look to continue to strengthen with the Korean won remaining an outperformer despite intervention threats by the Korean central bank. The euro will benefit from dollar weakness but is unlikely to benefit from anything euro specific given the likely slower pace of recovery in the eurozone. Meanwhile sterling is likely to remain under pressure, not helped by yield or risk appetite, and sentiment hit afresh by weak data.

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