Calm after the storm

After yesterday’s carnage, global equity markets have recovered some of their poise. Whether this is a pause before another wave of pressure or something more sustainable is debatable. It appears that US equities are finally succumbing to a plethora of bad news.  Higher US yields have driven the equity risk premium lower.  Also there’s probably a degree of profit taking ahead of the onset of the Q3 US earnings season.

At the same time valuations have become increasingly stretched.  For example, the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is around 6% higher than its 5 year average while almost all emerging market price/earnings ratios are well below their 5 year averages.  While strong US growth prospects may justify some or even all of this differential, the gap with emerging markets has widened significantly.

While US President Trump blames an “out of control” US Federal Reserve, it would have been hard for the Fed to do anything else but raise policy rates at its last meeting.  If the Fed didn’t hike at the end of September, bond yields would like have moved even higher than the 3.26% reached on the 10 year US Treasury yield earlier this week as markets would have believed the Fed is falling behind the curve.   However, as US yields rise and the equity risk premium reacts, the opportunity cost of investing in equities rises too.

In the FX world the US dollar could succumb to more pressure if US equities fall further but as we saw yesterday, USD weakness may mainly be expressed versus other major currencies (EUR etc).  Emerging market currencies continue to face too many headwinds including higher US rates and tightening USD liquidity, as well as trade tariffs.  The fact that emerging market growth indicators are slowing, led by China, also does not bode well for EM assets.  Unfortunately that means that emerging market assets will not benefit for the time being from any rout in US assets despite their valuation differences.

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US dollar slips as yields pull back

Market sentiment deteriorated overnight as equity markets in the US and Europe declined while commodity prices also dropped. US yields slipped which undermined the USD. Growth downgrades by the IMF and OECD did not help especially given the weaker growth trajectory for some emerging market countries.

Meanwhile, two central banks did not follow the now usual pattern of easing, with the Bank of Canada leaving policy on hold and Brazil’s central bank hiking policy rates although Thailand cut interest rates. A lack of first tier data releases today will limit activity although the tone will likely remain relatively downbeat.

Having failed to take break through 1.3250 at the beginning of the month the EUR/USD will end the month on a softer note. EUR/USD in particular has been very sensitive to yield differentials and the widening in the US Treasury yield advantage over German bunds has been consistent with a drop in the currency pair. In this respect further direction will come from bond markets.

While Eurozone data releases are becoming less negative as reflected in manufacturing confidence data earlier this week and likely to be seen in various economic and business confidence indices today this is in stark contrast to US data releases which highlight strengthening in recovery notwithstanding a likely downward revision to US Q1 GDP today. Consequently it is difficult to envisage EUR/USD strengthening much from current levels, with 1.3030 seen as a strong resistance level.

A narrowing in Australia’s yield advantage, declining terms of trade, weaker China data and a relatively firm USD index have all contributed to AUD weakness. Additionally weak domestic data have fuelled expectations that the RBA will cut interest rates. However, a rate cut at next week’s policy meeting is unlikely especially as the drop in AUD will help ease financial conditions allowing the Reserve Bank of Australia to wait to examine further data before cutting rates again sometime in Q3 2013.

The AUD may find some short term stability around current levels, with support around AUD/USD 0.9528. While technical indicators remain bearish a lot of bad news is already in the price. Further out, I expect the AUD to rebound as reflected by the fact that my quantitative model shows that the AUD/USD is oversold relative to its short term fair value while short speculative positioning is reaching extreme levels.

GBP is another currency that has been battered by a strong USD but while it has lost ground versus the USD over recent weeks it has held up against other major currencies. GBP/USD has rallied overnight as US yields have pulled back but this may prove temporary, with the currency pair vulnerable to a drop below 1.5000 over coming days.

Against the EUR the picture looks more constructive. My quantitative model shows that GBP looks particularly good value against the EUR, with the model producing a “strong sell” signal for EUR/GBP. Limited data releases in the UK this week will mean that GBP takes its cue from gyrations in the USD and EUR while markets look ahead to next week’s manufacturing purchasing managers’ index and the Bank of England policy decision

Pressure, panic and carnage

Pressure, panic and carnage doesn’t even begin to describe the volatility and movements in markets last week. If worries about global economic growth and the eurozone debt crisis were not enough to roil markets the downgrade of the US sovereign credit rating after the market close on Friday sets the background for a very shaky coming few days. All of this at a time when many top policy makers are on holiday and market liquidity has thinned over the summer holiday period.

The downgrade of US credit ratings from the top AAA rating should not be entirely surprising. After all, S&P have warned of a possible downgrade for months and the smaller than hoped for $2.1 trillion planned cuts in the US fiscal deficit effectively opened the door for a ratings downgrade. Some solace will come from the fact that the other two main ratings agencies Moody’s and Fitch have so far maintained the top tier rating for the US although Fitch will make it’s decision by the end of the month.

Comparisons to 2008 are being made but there is a clear difference time this time around. While in 2008 policy makers were able to switch on the monetary and fiscal taps the ammunition has all but finished. The room for more government spending in western economies has now been totally used up while interest rates are already at rock bottom. Admittedly the US Federal Reserve could embark on another round of asset purchases but the efficacy of more quantitative easing is arguably very limited.

Confidence is shattered so what can be done to turn things around? European policy makers had hoped that their agreement to provide a second bailout for Greece and beef up the EFSF bailout fund would have stemmed the bleeding but given the failure to prevent the spreading of contagion to Italy and Spain it is difficult to see what else they can do to stem the crisis.

Current attempts can be likened to sticking a plaster on a grevious wound. Although I still do not believe that the eurozone will fall apart (more for political rather than economic reasons) eventually there may have to be sizeable fiscal transfers from the richer countries to the more highly indebted eurozone countries otherwise the whole of the region will be dragged even further down.

Where does this leave FX markets? The USD will probably take a hit on the US credit ratings downgrade but I suspect that risk aversion will play a strong counter-balancing role, limiting any USD fallout. I also don’t believe that there will be a major impact on US Treasury yields which if anything may drop further given growth worries and elevated risk aversion. It is difficult for EUR to take advantage of the USDs woes given that it has its own problems to deal with.

Despite last week’s actions by the Swiss and Japanese authorities to weaken their respective currencies, CHF and JPY will remain in strong demand. Any attempt to weaken these currencies is doomed to failure at a time when risk aversion remains highly elevated, a factor that is highly supportive for such safe haven currencies. From a medium term perspective both currencies are a sell but I wouldn’t initiate short positions just yet.

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.

EUR higher but resistance looms

EUR and risk currencies in general were buoyed by the passage of the austerity bill in the Greek parliament. The implementation bill is also likely to be passed later today opening the door for the disbursement of EUR 12 billion from the European Union / IMF from the EUR 110 bailout agreed for the country. Combined with news that German banks are progressing towards agreeing on a mechanism to roll over Greek debt alongside French banks as well as likelihood of an European Central Bank (ECB) rate hike next week, the EUR is set to remain supported over the short term.

Nonetheless, it once again looks as though a lot of good news is priced in and it would be surprising if EUR/USD could extend to above strong resistance around 1.4557 given the many uncertainties ahead, not the least of which includes the stance of ratings agencies on any Greek debt rollover.

USD/JPY is the only major currency pair that is correlated with bond yield differentials at present (2-year yields) and therefore it should not come as a surprise that USD/JPY has moved higher as the yield differential between the US and Japan has widened by around 10bps over the past week. Indeed, yesterday’s move above 81.00 was spurred by the move in yield differentials although once again the currency pair failed to build sufficient momentum to close above this level.

Further gains will require US bond yields to move even higher relative to Japan but perhaps the end of QE2 today may mark a turning point for US bond markets and currencies. The end of QE2 taken together with a jump in bond supply over coming months, will see US Treasury yields will move sharply higher, implying much more upside for USD/JPY.

AUD has bounced back smartly over recent days, with the currency eyeing resistance around 1.0775 versus USD. A general improvement in risk appetite has given the currency some support but markets will be unwilling to push the currency much higher ahead of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) meeting next week. On the plus side, there are no rate hikes priced in for Australia over the remainder of the year, suggesting an asymmetric risk to next week’s meeting.

In other words, unless the RBA openly discusses rate cuts in the statement, the AUD will likely remain supported. Conversely any indication that a rate hike may be in prospect will be AUD supportive. In any case we continue to believe the AUD offers better value especially relative to NZD and maintain our trade idea to buy AUD/NZD.

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