Category Archives: EUR

EUR weighed down by GBP not Draghi

eurandgbp

Looking at the markets, it seems as if Draghi said that the ECB would be easing further come December, or at the very least March. The EUR has gone into a tailspin since the ECB meeting, and journalists are queuing up to blame Draghi. The trouble is, no-one seems quite sure what he said that triggered the move. One headline said “Euro close to 8-month lows vs dollar Friday after ECB chief Mario Draghi ruled out an abrupt end to QE.” Another headline “Euro wallows near March lows after Draghi quashes tapering talk”. So did he quash taper talk, or did he say the ECB would taper? Because if you don’t end abruptly, you taper (it’s one or the other). And which is better for the EUR? Because when it was suggested that the ECB would taper a month or so ago (by some unnamed committee member that Draghi emphasised had no insight) the EUR went up. So presumably if they don’t taper it goes down? Except Draghi said they would taper. Which I would have thought was sensible, and less likely to be EUR positive than an abrupt end to QE if anyone thought about it. Which all probably goes to show how silly the original “taper tantrum” was, but doesn’t really explain why the EUR has been so weak since Draghi’s press conference, especially since the effects of the initial taper tantrum were fairly short-lived in any case because on reflection most saw that the initial story didn’t mean a great deal, true or not.

In reality I don’t think the market really saw anything new in Draghi’s comments, but in the absence of anything new, the downtrend in EUR/USD remains in place. EUR/USD has been in a downtrend since the Brexit vote, and with the market expecting a Fed rate hike in December and currently seeing a probable Clinton victory as favourable (presumably because it is essentially the status quo – no nasty surprises), the burden of proof is now on those that want to oppose the EUR/USD downtrend. It is interesting that the Brexit situation appears to be the key factor that has pushed EUR/USD lower, though the UK is a small economy by comparison to the US and Eurozone giants. It is certainly the case that EUR/USD has never regained the 1.1377 high seen on June 24 and had been edging higher into the vote. It is hard to see that the economic news form the two economies since then has been particularly USD positive or EUR negative. If anything the opposite is true. Certainly since the beginning of this year the performance of the Eurozone in both growth and inflation has been broadly in line with expectations, while US growth has significantly underperformed. In fact, the OECD currently expect US GDP growth to be weaker than the Eurozone’s this year, and although many expect the Fed to raise rates in December, this is significantly less tightening than had been anticipated  at the start of the year.

So we need some change in market perceptions for the EUR to stop falling, at least until we reach the key levels in the 1.05-1.08 area in EUR/USD. A less negative view of Brexit from the perspective of both the UK and the Eurozone is the most obvious potential trigger, though that doesn’t seem imminent with the EU ruling out negotiation until the UK invokes Article 50, which most likely will be in Q1 2017. The other main possibility is a change in the perception of the Fed, though the way things have turned out this year suggests that even if the Fed don’t raise rates in December, the hit to USD strength may only be temporary unless the ECB turn out to be unexpectedly hawkish at their December meeting. The third chance of a Trump victory is one I hope we don’t have to consider.

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Merkel must spend more

 

merkel1

I seem to have left my purse at home

Yesterday’s ECB press conference was, for the most part, fairly lacklustre. No unexpected measures, Draghi sounding quite bored, forecasts very little changed. Markets had vaguely hoped for at least the promise of more action, but got nothing new. But towards the end there were some interesting comments which, together with the G20 statement last week, underline that the ECB and other central banks are telling governments  – specifically Germany – that there isn’t much more monetary policy can do and it is time for some fiscal action. Draghi’s two comments on this were to state that governments which had scope to do more on fiscal policy should, and he noted that Germany had scope to do more. He also agreed strongly with a questioner who noted the weakness of German wage growth and underlined that higher wage growth in Germany was very much desired. In other words, he told Germany they should be spending more money.

There are a few things the German government can do directly about wage growth. The can pay government employees more, and they can raise the minimum wage, but the majority of wage deals are struck without direct government involvement. As Draghi also noted in answer to another question, Europe is not a planned economy. But without stronger German wage growth, it is very hard to get inflation up in Europe, as German wage costs provide an effective ceiling in many industries to wage costs in the rest of Europe. It was precisely because wage costs elsewhere in the Eurozone rose so much faster than in Germany in the 2000s that the rest of Europe became so uncompetitive, and a lot of this was because German wages barely rose at all. Nominal wage costs in Germany rose less than 1% from 2000 to 2008. That’s in total, not per year.  Given the relative weakness of the rest of the Eurozone, unless Germany can get inflation above the 1.5-2% target, there is no chance that the European average can get up there, and to do that, wage costs have to rise a lot faster. So Draghi is putting pressure on Germany to inflate.

There is plenty the German government can do. German is running a (marginal) budget surplus. The government can borrow at negative rates. It is hard to see the downside to expanding borrowing aggressively and spending on infrastructure, especially since they need to find jobs to give all the extra refugees they are letting in (or wage growth will fall further). It would even provide the ECB with more debt for their QE program. It would not just be a good thing for the Eurozone, it would be a good thing for Germany, where I’m told the roads are in dire need of  attention.

Another way of looking at this is to note that the German current account surplus last year was 8.5% of GDP, and is forecast to be over 9% this year. 9%!!!!!! The UK is worried about it’s deficit of 6% (and rightly so) but the UK problem is at least partly the lack of demand from the Eurozone, and the rest of the Eurozone also struggles because Germany doesn’t import enough. Germany is the main guilty party. It needs to reduce it’s current account surplus by expanding demand. There is no way of doing this by monetary policy any more, as rates are as low as possible already. The government needs to take responsibility by increasing investment.

Why Germany hasn’t gone down this route already is a mystery to me. It seems to have something to do with the fiscal conservatives who believe in balancing your budget without regard to the cycle, the needs of the EU as a whole, or anything that has been written on economics since the 19th century. But it really is time to get real, and Draghi and the G20 are ramping up the pressure on Merkel, Schaeuble and co.  It used to be that Japan was the main guilty party for running massive trade surpluses, then China. Now it’s Germany, and action is overdue.

current-accounts

Source: OECD

From an FX perspective, such actions would be supportive for the EUR in the short term, and some may not like that, but amassing a massive current account surplus is far more damaging in the long term, as it will either prevent a European recovery or cause the EUR will surge higher in the next US downturn as capital outflows dry up.

 

 

 

 

The value is in EUR

The short term focus in FX has been on central banks. The lack of BoJ action,  diminishing expectations of action from the Fed, and the ECB approaching the limits of easing have all contributed to a strong JPY and EUR and weaker USD, while today saw the RBA sucked into the anti-deflation battle once again, halting the AUD recovery. The rationale for focusing so much on minor changes in central bank policy seems to me to be very flawed, and the scale of the reactions on the face of it looks excessive. But what appears to be excessive volatility in reaction to minor news may in fact be something else. It may be a reflection of very out of line initial valuations. As the market’s love of the USD and the story of widening yield spreads fades, recent sharp moves may reflect a realisation that valuations may be a long way out of line if the focus is changing. This is important for anyone looking beyond the short term, and even short term traders should be aware that with the long term USD uptrend under threat, the dominant paradigm may be shifting.

The simplest way of looking at value in FX is to consider real trade-weighted indices. These provide a comparison of the real value of currencies over time. I have put together a chart using BIS data rebased to February 1987 – the data of the Louvre accord when the major countries tried to stabilise currencies. This is not necessarily representative of fair value for reasons I will elaborate on later, but is a reasonable place to start. On this basis, the JPY looks the cheapest of the major currencies, and the Swiss franc the most expensive. The USD went from cheap in 2013 to expensive by the end of 2014 and extended its valuation though 2015. GBP also looks expensive on this basis, albeit a little less so than it was, while the EUR is on the cheap side.

realeffectives

But valuation on this basis misses out two key factors. First, the possibility of structural change and second the cyclical movements in currencies that result from movements in yield spreads. Of course, the latter is by its nature a temporary phenomenon, and cyclical movements in currencies always looks excessively volatile based on yield spreads. The increased attraction of higher yields makes a currency more attractive, but currency moves typically substantially overcompensate for the increased expected return. This is why a change in market sentiment can conversely produce an apparently excessive reaction in the opposite direction, as in the recent move in the JPY.

However, structural changes can and should have a sustained impact on currency valuations. I tend to look at this in terms of movements in the current account. Currencies with big current account surpluses tend to be more highly valued than those with a deficit, as a current account surplus represents a persistent flow into the currency which needs to be offset by capital flows in the opposite direction, encouraged by a higher currency. Changes in the terms of trade are one major factor that can change the structural current account position, but other factors can also have an impact.

In the current situation, the most notable current account changes in recent years have been the rise in the Eurozone current account surplus, the rise in the UK deficit, and the decline, and more recently recovery, in the Japanese surplus. These are important changes, because the history of the real exchange rate index has to be coloured by such structural changes. So the weakness in the JPY we have seen until recently was in part justified by the deterioration in the Japanese current account position. However, the recent improvement suggests some scope for the JPY to recover, especially since the weakness had in any case overshot somewhat. Meanwhile, the big rise in the Eurozone current account surplus justifies a stronger EUR valuation, and the converse is true for the UK.

Now, movements in the current account are also cyclical, with stronger growth economies typically having bigger deficits, and cyclically improving current account positions are not normally positive for a currency, because they are usually accompanied by independent capital outflows towards higher growth economies, usually because of higher or rising yields. But when the relative growth underperformance stops, the surplus doesn’t quickly disappear, and the surplus may become the dominant factor. This is the situation now in the Eurozone. The EUR not only looks cheap on valuation, it is even cheaper when the recent current account improvement is taken into account, and currently the Eurozone is also actually growing faster than the US or the UK (at least in Q1 2016). So something of a perfect storm for the EUR.

As for the JPY, while it looks the cheapest currency compared to history, it is probably less cheap than the EUR when the recent structural changes are taken into account. This is illustrated in the chart below.

 

valuemodel

So in the longer term I would see plenty of further upside for the EUR. However, in the short to medium term, the USD and GBP could recover if relatively strong US and UK growth returns and yield spreads resume the widening trend. Nevertheless, while his could happen in the next few quarters, I see little scope for this to continue longer term as cyclically adjusted budget positions in the US, and particularly the UK, need to be reined in. In comparison, the Eurozone has potential to expand budgets being that much further below trend output and full employment.

 

Draghi and the EUR

eurusdspread

While there was a whole lot of volatility around the ECB meeting, can we really say that the policies or the statements from Draghi were surprising? The thing that moved the markets hardest was Draghi’s admission that there were no plans to take further action, and there was a limit to how far the ECB were prepared to cut rates into negative territory. But it is bizarre that the markets should think that the ECB, having announced a wide ranging package of aggressive stimulus measures, largely unconventional, should already be contemplating more. To do so would be to admit that failure is likely, which they are hardly going to do (even if the market probably thinks it is). That there is a downside limit to the usefulness of negative rates is also hardly news. Without tiering – which would mitigate the effect of more negative rates on banks and allow them to avoid passing negative rates on to retail customers for longer – the ability of the public to hold cash in preference to a negative yielding bank account provides an obvious downside limit for rates.

So what are we to make of the huge EUR/USD rally? One view is that it provides a massive opportunity for EUR bears. The T-note/bund spread that has been the best guide to EUR/USD over the last year or so has risen further and at 170bps suggests scope to move back down to around 1.0750 (see chart). However, after another bruising encounter with the ECB, the USD bulls may be starting to lose some confidence, so I doubt we will see a rapid move back down to test 1.08, at least until we see some more compelling evidence that the US economy is flourishing and the Fed are set to hike again in June.

However, there may also be some concern that the underlying drivers of EUR/USD may be starting to change a little. The massive Eurozone current account surplus has, for much of the last year, been overwhelmed by the capital outflow from the Eurozone. But even though yields in the Eurozone are unattractive, any loss of confidence in the likelihood of further EUR weakness will limit the enthusiasm of Eurozone investors to put money abroad, especially when there isn’t a huge amount of confidence in growth elsewhere. The lack of any real enthusiasm from Draghi to force the EUR down (illustrated by the lack of tiering which would have allowed still more negative rates, and the highlighting of the “solemn” G20 agreement) will probably further undermine investors’ belief in future EUR weakness.

Nevertheless, I would favour the EUR drifting lower for now, back toward the 1.10 area which is essentially the middle of the current 1.08-1.12 range (1.05-1.15 on the wide). But there is a feel that a sea change may be in the offing in the FX markets , so I wouldn’t get too committed to EUR shorts here. Big picture, you have to remember that these are cheap levels to buy EUR if the ECB’s policies prove successful.

A simpler trade for the USD bulls here may be to sell GBP/USD. Considerations about the Eurozone’s current account surplus don’t apply to the UK – indeed the opposite is true give the big UK deficit. At current yield spreads there also doesn’t look to be any Brexit premium in GBP/USD – so any poll movement in favour of the leave camp in the coming months (and I’m pretty sure there will be one, even though I suspect that in the end the UK will vote to stay) could cause a sharp GBP decline. Even without it, the uncertainty surrounding to issue seems to limit the upside for GBP now the majority of the short GBP positions have probably been squared. Additionally, the upcoming Budget may see more fiscal tightening that further reduces the chance of any monetary tightening this year. GBP/USD is in any case likely to decline if EUR/USD slips back. And while the risk positive market tone and the strong oil price have helped give GBP some support in recent sessions, the big picture truth is that the oil price is still very low here and there is in any case no real risk premium in GBP to account for the decline in oil. Commodity producers listed on FTSE may attract some capital inflow if commodity prices continue to recover, but I wouldn’t see this as the basis for a sustainable GBP recovery. Finally, it is important to remember that while GBP/USD looks low by recent standards, in real terms 1.44 now is equivalent to about 1.58 in 2008 because of high UK inflation in the intervening period.

 

Cheer up Mr Draghi

The Eurozone economy is a long way from being healthy, so it’s understandable that the market remains inclined to believe in more ECB easing at the March 10 meeting. I’m not going to go too far into the details of what the market expects, but a rate cut of 10bp or more and an increase in QE both now seem pretty much expected, along with possible tiering of deposit rates to limit the impact on banks. Of course, last time  market went in with this expectation is got a bloody nose, with the ECB only producing a  10bp cut in the deposit rate in December, so positioning is likely to be a little more cautious this time around. But the ECB do seem less likely to disappoint the market this time, both because of less committed market expectations and because Mr Draghi will be very conscious of the risks of a EUR rally if he fails to produce a significant easing.

But while that may be what they will do, I’m not at all sure it’s what they should do. The ECB’s behaviour is looking to me to be increasingly overactive and is starting to look panicky, which seems to me to be creating rather than relieving concerns about the economy.  It’s true that here has been a manufacturing slowdown since the last meeting, but no more so than elsewhere – indeed rather less so than in the US. PMIs have dipped but still indicate slow growth – we are not back in recession. Inflation is a little lower than expected or desired, especially the latest February number, but inflation can be quite volatile on a month to month basis and it is rash to make major policy decisions based on one month’s number. After all, while the market was disappointed by December’s easing, it is still the case that the ECB did ease as recently as December.  Two easings in 3 monthswould suggest some need to panic, and I don’t think that’s a story the ECB should be telling. While they eased twice in 3 months in 2014, it was against the background of a very strong exchange rate. This time around, they have a weak exchange rate and inflation is being significantly subdued by a weak oil price. Core inflation dropped to 0.7% in February, but was 1% in January which was above where it was when they eased in 2014.That monetary conditions are being eased further even though the outlook looks better than in the past may reflect policy having bee too tight for too long, but this perma-easy stance with a hair trigger for further easing carries its dangers.

Firstly, there seems little reason to believe that a further ECB easing will have any significant impact. The ECB themselves indicate that loan growth is improving already and the pass through from any further exchange rate weakness is unlikely to be very large given the weakness of emerging market currencies. What the region could do with is an expansion of fiscal policy from those that can afford it (Germany). A modest deposit rate cut, especially if it is tiered to protect banks (and by implication savings rates) will have minimal impact. Secondly, the ECB seems to me to be underestimating the value of promoting confidence. A more upbeat assessment of the economy and an indication that they have some belief that the (substantial) policy measures already put in place were taking effect and would continue to take effect in the coming months would have a more positive impact. Gloom and doom and a further monetary easing both undermines confidence and takes the pressure off government to do anything on the fiscal side.

None of this means the ECB won’t ease next week. Indeed, the risk of market disappointment now means they probably need to given the expectations that have built up, in large part because of ECB rhetoric. But it would sensible if this time around Draghi emphasised some of the positives rather than indicating the potential for further action. Sensible because he is probably not going to be able to squeeze anything more out of the hawks on the committee anyway, unless there is clear evidence of a dive into recession, and even if he could it would be unlikely to have much impact. An attempt to build some confidence and perhaps encourage governments to take their share of the burden would, I think, be more effective than threats of ever more negative rates.

GBP – History repeating.

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating” The Propellerheads

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” Hegel

“The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself” ABBA

Instinctively, I tend to assume the human race has made progress over the last 100 years and our understanding of most things has increased dramatically. Technology has advanced enormously and clearly one thing that has changed in financial markets is the ability to access liquidity in all manner of financial instruments. But has the understanding of what drives financial markets and what is the appropriate valuation for markets improved?  I would like to say yes, but my experience tells me that the answer is no. Technology has vastly increased the amount of information available to market participants, but the understanding of the importance of various different pieces of information seems no better than it was in 1929, 1974, 2000, 2008 or times in between. In fact, the huge increase in the amount of information available may only serve to obfuscate the information of real importance, as markets react to red headlines and systematic asset managers are programmed to react in the same way as in the past or to follow the crowd. An increase in the volume of information only reduces the impact of the information that is of real importance if the market assigns some importance to every piece of information. Or in other words, the more information there is the more possible reasons there are to justify any given market valuation. Thus, the 2000 dotcom bubble found a reason for a wildly out of line valuation, and there were enough greedy investors and trend followers to send equity markets to stratospherically silly levels.

So much for philosophy. What’s the relevance to today’s markets? I wrote recently about the low valuation of European equities (see “A huge opportunity”), and I stick by that view. Some have come back to me worrying about low European growth, Italian banks, Cocos, European immigration, populist movements, but this seems to me to miss the point. There are always risks and concerns, but they have to be evaluated relative to the things that matter for value – in the case of equities this means growth prospects, the initial level of  earnings and dividends, alternative investments (interest rates), and risk premia, which is a bit of a catch all and can be used to justify almost anything, but a sensible view tells me that risks now are less serious than they were at the height of the Greek crisis.

For currencies the metrics are different, and although most of the time the markets are dominated by risk on/risk off trades, it makes little sense to think of currencies moving in this way over the long run. Real currency levels are ultimately anchored to fairly static long run valuation measures, unlike equities which rise over time with nominal growth. Relative growth rates can certainly matter for currencies, not least because they affect relative interest rates, but in the developed world there is actually relatively little long term divergence in growth rates, especially when adjusted for population growth. This isn’t really that surprising, as in the developed world technology and capital is very mobile, and it is hard for one country to show a sustained superior growth performance. Most of the time, better growth is temporary, and comes with a price, usually a bigger current account deficit, as is currently clear in the UK. Changes in the terms of trade – as can be seen with the big move in the oil price – will of course have a long term impact, but I distrust debt fuelled growth (and any growth that is generating an unsustainable current account deficit is debt fuelled from a whole country perspective) as long run reason for currency strength. Sooner or later (admittedly usually later) the positive currency impact of stronger growth and higher rates is reversed either by the need to rein back on growth to control the current account or inflation or the budget, or by others catching up.

What does this have to do with history repeating for GBP? Well it’s a roundabout way of saying that the strong pound, the growing UK current account deficit (and indeed twin UK deficits) are a repeat of a long history of similar episodes in post war UK economic history. The strength of the pound won’t last and we are headed for either a slow or a fast decline in the pound, depending on whether the UK stays in the EU (staying will hold GBP up) and whether the world economy picks up (if it does the decline in GBP will be slower). But the period of UK and GBP outperformance is hitting traditional current account buffers. Sure, UK won’t have to go cap in hand to the IMF this time as in 1976, and a fading of Brexit fears may trigger a GBP rally of sorts. But whatever the politicians agree, the risk of a vote to leave will remain, and more importantly, the underlying economics doesn’t justify a stronger pound, or even as strong a pound as we have now in the longer run. With even McCafferty accepting that UK rates aren’t going up, EUR/GBP is a buy on the dip, even if the ECB cut again as is widely expected and add to QE. Look for 0.85 this year in EUR/GBP, possibly 0.95 if things go badly on Brexit.

 

Supertanker turns?

EUR/USD is a supertanker. It takes a lot to turn it, and yesterday’s break higher was long overdue, as the European data had been steady and the US data deteriorating for some time with little impact on the currency. Whether this is a proper long term turn depends on how much trust we can place in the evidence of weak US and more solid Eurozone data and whether we believe that Draghi has more ammunition to halt the EUR recovery. I suspect we aren’t quite ready to believe that the US recovery is burned out so long term EUR/USD gains will have to wait. But even if the supertanker hasn’t made a longer term turn, it doesn’t reverse these sort of moves quickly. While rapid moves of this sort are often corrected for a period before extending, I would still be looking to buy a big enough dip. Technically, we have now achieved the 61.8% retrace of the 1.1495 to 1.0525 October to December decline, so I wouldn’t be chasing it as we may well see some retrace, but I think it will take real news, and not just a decent employment report tomorrow, to get us back below 1.10 with major supports now at 1.0980 and 1.0940. People may start to remember that employment data often lags the cycle.

For what it’s worth, I doubt that he US economy is really weakening dramatically. The data is unreliable in the short run and the short term impact of a weaker oil price may have been negative, but longer term effects are more likely to be positive. I wouldn’t rule out a rate hike this year, despite the latest market moves, though again, we need to see some numbers to get the market thinking that way again, and they aren’t going to turn up immediately.

Of course, Draghi won’t be happy to see EUR/USD spiking higher, and its rise will give him some ammunition to persuade the ECB Council that more easing is required. If he gets the desired further ease, EUR/USD will settle into a range again. I’m not sure he will but the market is probably going to bet on it ahead of the March meeting, so I think other currencies where easing is less likely are more attractive USD alternatives. The JPY is one possibility, and the easing has already been done so another move near term is unlikely, but you have to back weak equities to favour major yen strength. It’s quite possible, but I’m not quite ready to do that as even though the US data has been disappointing, equities get the comfort of lower yields, and European data has been less of a concern. I’m keener on the AUD, which looks ripe for a recovery if commodities stabilise, and the SEK, where the Riksbank’s threats look empty with EUR/SEK pushing 9.40 and growth remains the strongest in the developed world.