Unrest in the Middle East grabs markets' attention; dollar, gold, oil rally, stocks sell off

Tom Tong31/Ιαν/2011Currency Updates

The week started well enough for risk assets, as the newsflow from the European crisis improved somewhat and allowed stocks to break to new highs for this cycle. However, as news that the Tunisian unrest had spread to Egypt hit the tapes, markets reacted as one would expect, sending the dollar, precious metals and oil higher and stocks lower, together with most risky assets. The consensus that had developed around emerging market economic and financial outperformance did not help matters, as the heavy long EM positioning across markets meant that there were few buyers left for such assets. In the end, the dollar ended the week slightly higher in trade-weighted terms.


There was a deluge of macroeconomic and monetary information out of the UK last week. On Tuesday, fourth-quarter GDP growth delivered a nasty shock. Rather than the 2% or so expansion in SAAR terms that had been expected, there had been an actual shrinkage of the same magnitude. Exceptionally bad weather no doubt accounted for part of the surprise, but the markets were left with the clear sense that fiscal tightening was having an earlier and stronger effect on the British economy than had been expected.

Then on Thursday the minutes of the Bank of England delivered another surprise. Another dissenter had joined Sentance in calling for a hike, and the tone of the minutes was generally more hawkish and concerned with stubbornly high inflation than had been expected. It bears noting, however, that the minutes refer to a weeks-old meeting and that the GDP information was not available to the Bank of England at the time. In the end, worries over the UK economy carried the day over the possibility of a hawkish BoE, and Sterling dropped nearly 1% against both the dollar and the euro. It appears that our bearish stance on the UK economy and sterling is being vindicated by the data, and we see no reason to change our negative view of GBP.


The two-week rally in peripheral sovereign bonds came to an end last week. The Spanish proposal to recapitalize its troubled savings banks was widely considered to be insufficient and too lenient in terms of the timeline. However, FX markets paid more attention earlier in the week to the continued good macroeconmic news out of core Europe, as PMI business sentiment indices all came in at or above expectations driven by strong German performance. The euro rallied into Friday, when the market stopped ignoring the news coming out of Egypt and the USD finally found a flight-to-safety bid. The common currency gave up its gains, and ended the week close to unchanged against the greenback. As no news are expected for a while regarding the EFSF and changes to the European bailout mechanism, we expect short term moves in the euro to be driven more by the unpredictable news coming out of the Middle East.


The main news out of the US last week was a rather strong fourth-quarter GDP number. Although headline growth came in slightly lower than expected, this was due entirely to a large inventory drawdown. Final domestic demand grew 7.1%, driven by a 4.4% increase in consumption and an improved trade balance. The news was released on Friday, and the subsequent USD rally was helped along by the Egyptian unrest and the generalized flight out of emerging markets, as the greenback closed the week up 0.3% in trade-weighted terms.

Other G10

The Japanese yen briefly broke its tight correlation with US rates last week. The news that S&P had downgraded Japanese government debt hit the tape after Tokyo close on Wednesday, and it immediately sent JPY lower by well over 1%. However, Friday’s news on the Egyptian unrest quickly reversed the trend and sent the yen higher on the usual flight-to-safety bid. JPY recovered all of its post-downgrade losses and ended the week up 0.5% against the dollar.

Dollar bloc currencies put in sharply divergent performances last week. The New Zealand dollar traded generally higher all week until Friday, while the Australian dollar was weighed down by a lower-than-expected quarterly CPI print and the increasing estimates from the damage caused by the Queensland floods. Meanwhile, the Canadian dollar also traded down on a lower-than-expected inflation release. In the end, all three currencies were sold on Friday on news of the spreading Egyptian unrest. NZD managed to end the week up a sharp 1.7% against the dollar, while the AUD was essentially unchanged and the loonie lost about 0.6%. It bears noting that the AUD / NZD cross is again at levels (1.28 or so) where we would favour the Australian dollar over its New Zealand counterpart.

A relatively dovish statement out of the Norges bank did not help the NOK, which continued its recent trend and lost ground against the SEK. The sharp outpeformance of SEK against both NOK and the euro faltered somewhat on Friday, amid the generalized stock sell off, although it still managed to end the week up over 1% against both.

The Swiss Franc behaved true to form last week. After a week of desultory but generally stronger trading, the Egyptian news sent it sharply higher against the euro on a generalized flight-to-safety mood in financial markets. The SNB cannot be pleased with last weeks’ nearly 2% rally in CHF vs. the euro.


Written by Tom Tong

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