It’s definitely been a strange start to the year, with markets taking plenty of time to get their bearings. Some general themes have developed but none have provided clear direction. As a result, the path over coming weeks and months is likely to remain highly volatile and in this respect, currencies, equities and bonds will continue to see strong gyrations.
One theme that has been evident since the start of the year is an improvement in sentiment towards the eurozone periphery as hopes of an enlargement/extension of the European Union bailout fund (EFSF) have increased. This is a key reason why the EUR has strengthened this year although nervousness on this front appears to have returned over recent days (note the recent widening in peripheral bond spreads, drop in EUR and European Central Bank purchases of Portuguese debt). It seems that a lot of good news has already been discounted in relation to the eurozone periphery and now markets are in wait and see mode for the EU Council meeting on 24/25 March. There is a strong chance that eventually market expectations will prove overly optimistic and the EUR will drop but more on that later.
The second theme is global inflation concerns, driven by higher food and energy prices. Certainly this has had an impact on interest rate expectations and in some cases resulted in a hawkish shift in central bank language, notably in the eurozone and UK. Although European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet has toned down his comments on tighter monetary policy compared to the more hawkish rhetoric following the last ECB council meeting, expectations for monetary tightening in the eurozone still look overly hawkish, with a policy rate hike currently being priced in for August/September this year, which looks way too early. The EUR has benefitted from the relative tightening in eurozone interest rate expectations compare to the US but will suffer if and when such expectations are wound down.
Elsewhere in many emerging markets the impact of higher food prices is finding its way even more quickly into higher inflation, forcing central banks to tighten policy. In Asia, the urgency for higher rates is even more significant given that real interest rates (taking into account inflation) are negative in many countries. China has accelerated the pace of its rate hikes over recent months and looks set to continue to tighten policy much further to combat inflation. In India, worries about inflation and the need for further monetary tightening have clearly weighed on equity markets, with more pain to come. Although not the sole cause by any means, in the Middle East and Africa higher food prices are feeding social tensions such as in Egypt.
Another clear theme that has developed is the improvement in US economic conditions. The run of US data over recent months has been encouraging, confirming that the economy is gaining momentum. Even the disappointing January non-farm payrolls report has not dashed hopes of recovery, with many other job market indicators pointing to strengthening job conditions such as the declining trend in weekly US jobless claims. Manufacturing, business and consumer confidence measures have strengthened whilst credit conditions are easing, albeit gradually. The US economy is set to outperform many other major economies this year, especially the eurozone, which will be beset with a diverging growth outlook between northern and southern Europe.
Although the US dollar has not yet benefitted from stronger US growth given the still dovish tone of the Fed and ongoing asset purchases in the form of quantitative easing, the rise in US bond yields relative to other countries, will likely propel the dollar higher over 2011 after a rocky start over Q1 2011. In contrast, the EUR at current levels looks too strong and as noted above, hopes of a resolution of eurozone peripheral problems look overdone. EUR/USD levels above 1.3500 provide attractive levels to short the currency. Other growth currencies that will likely continue to do well are commodity currencies such as AUD, NZD and CAD, whilst the outlook for Asian currencies remains positive even despite recent large scale capital outflows. The JPY however, will be one currency that suffers from an adverse yield differential with the US as US bond yields rise relative to Japan.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.