The British Nutrition Foundation, whose members include British Sugar, Mars, McDonald’s and the Sugar Bureau, asked 27,500 5-16-year-old children about diets. Although more than three quarters of them know about the five-a-day fruit and veg thing, there was a surprising degree of cluelessness about where food comes from. One in ten thinks potatoes grow on trees. A third believe cheese is made from plants. And an astonishing one in five children thinks fish fingers are made of chicken. It beggars belief. How on earth could the question have been crafted to yield such a result? “Q. What are fish fingers made of? A. 1) Sodium ethyl p-hydroxybenzoate, 2) Horse, 3) Asteroids, 4) Plasticine, 5) Chicken”.
Investors faced a similarly trick question on Friday: “Q. Which currency do you want to buy today? A. 1) NZ dollar, 2) Swedish krona, 3) Canadian dollar, 4) Norwegian krone, 5) Chicken”. More than three quarters ticked option five and numbers one to four moved lower against the pound.
The New Zealand dollar suffered the most serious damage. When the two antipodean dollars went onto the retreat in early May it was the Aussie which led the way to the rear. Now, it seems, the Kiwi is playing catch-up. The leader on Friday was the Japanese yen but there is an element of seeming randomness to the currency’s movements at the moment and there was no particular reason for its three-quarter-yen advance. On the week it is unchanged against the pound (as, indeed, are the euro and the Swiss franc).
Except for the Kiwi, the yen and the Northern Scandinavian crowns, whose turn it was to give up ground, it was mainly nickel-and-dime stuff among the major currencies. Sterling picked up a dozen ticks against the euro and that was one of the bigger moves. The UK economic statistics made little difference. Mortgage approvals were up by less than expected, personal loans were up by more.
Overseas, the -5.6% monthly fall in Greek retail sales was almost a relief after the previous month’s -14.1% drop. Euroland unemployment was on target at 12.2%. Canada’s economy grew by an annualised 2.5% in Q1 (0.6% quarter-on-quarter). US Personal income and spending were slightly disappointing but the Michigan consumer sentiment index and the Chicago purchasing managers’ index (PMI) both handsomely exceeded expectations.
As always at the beginning of the month, PMIs are in the main attraction today. China’s two manufacturing PMIs came in at 50.8 and 49.2, giving a neutral average of 50. Australia’s 43.8 this morning was seven points higher on the month. Switzerland in pencilled in for a 50.9 this morning and the UK might just squeak in above 50 but the rest of Europe is expected to generate sub-50 readings, signifying contraction. The two American measures are forecast to average 50.75.
Apart from the PMI data and US construction spending there is nothing else on the ecostat agenda until the BRC’s UK retail sales figures at midnight. There is some potential for excitement when the Reserve Bank of Australia announces it interest rate decision early tomorrow but there is only an 8/1 chance of any change.
So it looks as though it will be the PMI readings that decide the course of play today. Oh, and the possible political risk to sterling if anything more concrete surfaces about the “secret affair” in Downing Street.
The Sherpas who look after Everest have a serious traffic problem as a result of the numbers trying to get to the top and down again. To free up one bottleneck they propose erecting a ladder at the Hilary Step, not far from the summit. It wouldn’t be the first ladder on Everest; that was installed forty years ago. Purists, who sneer at such “safety” measures and would rather lose the odd frostbitten limb than take advantage of artificial aids, are philosophically opposed to the idea. Others, who see no point in difficulty for difficulty’s sake, hail the march of technology and look forward to the installation of a chairlift.
A different bunch of modernists are scratching their heads at the way the Japanese authorities are tangling themselves into a corner over their professed aims for the yen, which they seem to change with their underpants. Six months ago it all looked so clear: The new government would instruct the Bank of Japan to go all out on a money-printing spree which would reverse a decade of inflation and set the economy on the road to recovery. A welcome side-effect of the strategy would be to weaken the yen, boosting demand for the country’s exports and pushing up equity prices.
In recent weeks that tidy “Abenomics” theory has rather come off the rails, not least because Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda reckons higher inflation will lead to lower interest rates and he appears to have less than an iron grip on the situation. His last solid comment on the matter was a week ago when he said the Bank had now taken all the steps necessary for success. Since then the Tokyo stock exchange has tanked 10% and ten-year Japanese government bond (JGP) yields have tripled from their record low six weeks ago.
The yen, too, has been all over the place, at least in part because of conflicting messages. Over the long weekend the Japanese currency was the worst performer among the majors, weakening by one yen against the pound while over the last week its two and a quarter yen gain made it top dog. Kuroda San unhelpfully puts this all down to “volatility”, just as a meteorologist might attribute a particularly fierce blizzard to “weather”.
In line with FX market tradition, not much else went on over the UK bank holiday. The pound, the US dollar, the Swiss franc and the Swedish krona are unchanged against one another from Friday morning. Sterling is fractionally higher against the Canadian and NZ dollars and the Norwegian krone. The Aussie continued its downward drift, losing nearly a cent to the pound.
Friday’s stronger figures for German business and investor confidence gave some help to the euro and an increase in the number of BBA mortgage approvals did sterling no harm. The 3.3% monthly increase in US durable goods orders was more than double what investors had been expecting but had little lasting effect on the US dollar. There were no important data announcements on Monday.
The only figures of any consequence today are from the States. The Case-Shiller index should show continued recovery for the residential property prices and the Conference Board’s index of consumer confidence is forecast to be three points higher on the month. Absent surprises, the London market will not be desperate to jump in with both feet after the long weekend and the rest of the world could have done so yesterday, had it been so minded. It ought to be a calm day.
Data from the Planck space telescope show “anomalies that can only have been caused by the gravitational pull of other universes “according to Dr Mersini-Houghton at the University of North Carolina. She believes there could be an infinite number of them. If it is correct, this parallel universe theory could explain many of the mysteries which trouble us today but it would also raise serious questions about our own. Was ours the only universe to be lumbered with Gordon Brown? And by what monstrous stroke of intergalactic misfortune did the nations of our Europe decide to apply the same currency and monetary policy simultaneously to Germany and Greece?
The euro fared reasonably well last week though, keeping pace with the pound and losing only a cent and a quarter to the US Dollar. On Friday it actually edged higher against sterling but lost ground to the commodity-related currencies, which pulled back some of the losses they had incurred earlier in the week. Compared with last Monday morning the Australian and New Zealand dollars are both down by 1.25%. In the last month the Kiwi has fallen 3.3% and the Aussie has lost nearly 5% of its value.
The one-cent gains of the AUD and NZD on Friday were the biggest moves in a quiet day for currencies. Between the US dollar, the euro, the pound, the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen there was no more than half a US cent of change. The few economic data delivered even less excitement than they promised, and they had not promised much. Euroland construction output was down by -7.9% in the year to April; Canadian inflation was slightly below forecast at 0.4%; Canadian wholesale sales increased by 0.3% in March; the University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment improved by seven points to a preliminary 83.7; Rightmove’s index of asking prices for UK residential property was up by 2.1% on the month and 2.5% on the year.
Today promises to be just as tedious. There are figures for Italian industrial orders, the Chicago Fed’s national activity index and New Zealand visitor arrivals. The Reserve Bank of Australia publishes the minutes of its last monetary policy meeting. In a parallel universe Greece will report economic growth of 15% in the first quarter and North Korea will become the 52nd US state but in this one it will be a struggle to stay awake until teatime.
Some Saudi Arabian students in Michigan take turns to cook lunch at the weekend. When Talal Al Rouki’s turn came up he made a rice dish called kabsah. Having prepared it he carried round to his friend’s house in the cooking pot. That pot being a pressure cooker and Mr Al Rouki being a Saudi Arabian, his neighbours naturally assumed he was about to blow something up and they called in the FBI. Armed Feds swooped on the suspect’s house and questioned him about the pressure cooker which, a witness alleged, was “bullet-coloured”. They eventually accepted that pressure cookers can also be used for culinary purposes and Mr Al Rouki avoided spending the rest of his life in Cuba.
Also escaping summary punishment this weekend was the Japanese yen. After meeting in, of all places, Aylesbury, G7 finance ministers held back from criticising Japan for its 30% devaluation of the yen. The official line is that G7 members must not deliberately seek to depreciate their currencies but, if that is what happens as a result of other economic policy, it’s alright. It gives a green light to a further decline for the yen, which passed through the psychologically important ¥100:US$1 mark on Thursday and will probably not see that level again for several years.
The yen did not move far on Friday though, in common with most other major currencies. The US dollar strengthened by nearly a cent against the pound and the Swiss franc weakened by half a cent. They were the outliers; the euro, the yen and the commodity dollars all start today less than a quarter of a (euro) cent away from Friday’s opening levels.
Friday’s data showed a slight narrowing of Britain’s trade deficit. They were in line with forecasts, as were the Canadian employment numbers, which included 12.5k new jobs and an unemployment figure steady at 7.2%. This morning Australia reported a useful 5.2% increase in mortgage lending but business confidence deteriorated from +2 to -2. Figures from China showed a 9.3% increase in industrial production and a 12.8% rise in retail sales.
The rest of Monday’s agenda is very sparsely-populated. From Europe come Swiss retail sales and Portuguese inflation. This afternoon’s US retail sales numbers are undoubtedly the most important announcement of the day. And that’s the lot until the NZ retail sales data tonight and house price figures from New Zealand (REINZ) and Britain (RICS). Excitement is not likely to be the theme unless US retail sales are way off track.
“Brits charged EUR54 for four ice creams in Rome” bellows a Daily Telegraph headline this morning. But it is misleading at several levels and might as well have said “Brits charged ?854,000 for four cars in Maranello”. First, the nationality of the gulls is irrelevant. Secondly, everybody knows that the price of an ice cream in Rome is directly proportional to its proximity to a tourist landmark. Third, had they done rudimentary research on Tripadvisor or similar they would have spotted that the Cafeteria Antica Roma ranks 4,845th among Roman eateries with reviews such as “Gangsters and Gelato” and “Avoid this place…”. It is no coincidence that it was Romans themselves who coined the expression “caveat emptor”.
And it was not just the emptores who were being cautious on Friday and Monday; the venditores were on their guard as well. The result was two days of mostly narrow ranges and lack of direction. The biggest loser over the four days was the Japanese currency, which fell by two yen against the pound, and the winner, by less than half an accidental cent, was the Canadian dollar. Sterling, the euro, the NZ dollar and the US dollar start today unchanged from their opening levels on Friday.
The one missing from that list is the Australian dollar, which took a one-cent dive this morning after the Reserve Bank of Australia lowered its Cash Rate from 3% to 2.75%. The move itself was no surprise but there had been a good deal of doubt as to whether it would come as soon as today. Had it not, the Aussie could well have strengthened by a cent instead of losing one.
The only other real tradable news was Friday’s US non-farm payrolls. A month ago there was disappointment when the jobs increase fell well short of forecast. This time the mood was one nearer to elation. Not only did the 165k increase comfortable exceed investors’ expectations, upward revisions to previous months added a further 114k jobs. Investors’ reaction was to sell the yen and to leave the dollar largely unchanged. (Intriguingly, they did much the same thing after last month’s disappointing figures.)
Monday’s data consisted mainly of purchasing managers’ indies (PMIs). Although those from Europe were by and large better than expected, investors had not been expecting much and the sub-50 readings all bespoke contraction. Canada’s Ivey PMI was in the growth zone at 52.2 but well down from the 61.6 that preceded it.
Today’s list of data is almost complete even as London opens, with Swiss unemployment steady at 3.1% and French industrial output down by -0.9% in March. All that remains is German factory orders, which will probably have fallen in March. Tonight comes the BRC retail sales monitor and China’s balance of trade. With little to pitch at on today’s agenda and not much more on tomorrow’s list investors might decide to stay on the sidelines until Thursday, which brings Australian employment, UK industrial production and the Bank of England’s monetary policy decision.
Over the years Italy has taken a lot of stick for its “voluntary” taxation system. Now, however, the British government wants to try the idea with pensioners. The work and pensions secretary said at the weekend that he wanted retired people to hand back some of their benefits, such as bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel subsidies. If the scheme proves popular it will be extended to younger people, who will be encouraged to pay double the stamp duty on their pension fund investments.
The Greek government might wish it could foster such charity from its own citizens but they are probably not feeling particularly charitable on their diet of sackcloth and ashes. Another 15k of them will be losing their public sector jobs in the next 18 months as a condition of Greece receiving the next tranche of its bailout money. Investors seemed unmoved by the sacrifice and the euro starts the week a third of a cent down from Friday’s opening level.
And the US dollar is two thirds of a cent lower, partly as a result of Friday’s weaker than expected figures for first quarter gross domestic product (GDP). Analysts had been expecting the US economy to have expanded by an annualised 3%, equivalent to quarterly growth of 0.7%. What they in fact got was a 2.5% expansion; 0.6% on a quarterly basis. There was no violent reaction from the dollar but it continued to drift lower. Disappointment at the GDP numbers was ameliorated somewhat by a stronger than expected Michigan consumer confidence index, which rose by four points to a provisional 76.4.
Friday’s best performing currency was the Japanese yen, which continued to climb following the Bank of Japan’s failure to announce any fresh stimulus measures. Sterling and the Swedish krona formed an unlikely pairing in second place, both of them strengthening against everything except the yen.
Other than the US confidence and GDP figures investors did not have much to play with on Friday. They will have slightly more inspiration today from Euroland and the States but still nothing from Britain. Spain has already released the numbers for inflation (1.5%) and retail sales (down by -8.9% in the year to March). Italy announces wage inflation and business confidence, Portugal publishes business and consumer confidence and Germany releases CPI inflation. The EC reveals its measures of business, and investor confidence. From the United States after lunch come personal income and spending and pending home sales. Tonight brings Japanese employment New Zealand business confidence, Australian private sector lending and China’s manufacturing sector purchasing managers’ index.
Friday’s pop quiz: What have the following people in common (other than that you’ve never heard of them); George Saunders, Jenna Lyons, Jonah Peretti, Matthew Quick, Lena Dunham and Connie Britton? Give in? They are, according to America’s Time magazine among the world’s 100 most influential people. To be fair, some of the folk on the list really are influential; Pope Francis, Angela Merkel, Beyoncé and Kung Fu Panda all made the cut. But where is Doctor Who, the time-travelling guardian of humanity? Where is IMF head Christine Lagarde, who works tirelessly to promote austerity in small, powerless countries? Where is ECB President Mario Draghi, who will do whatever it takes to preserve the euro? And where is Petros Clerides, who might put Sig. Draghi’s resolve to the test?
The attorney general of Cyprus insists parliament must give its approval to the bailout conditions handed down by the EU/IMF/ECB troika. That approval is by no means assured. Of the 56 MPs in Nicosia, 25 have already declared their opposition. One of them, George Perdikis, said in a statement; “It is, in my opinion, a crime and wrong to deliver Cyprus into the hands of the troika and allow it to become a colony.” With only 45% of parliamentarians openly opposed to the deal the chances are that it will go through but this latest development is evidence that a euro crisis is not over until it’s over. In Cyprus they haven’t even started advertising for fat ladies.
But investors were broadly unconcerned by it yesterday. The euro lost little more than a dozen ticks to sterling and firmed by that much against the US dollar. There were no Euroland ecostats to trouble it and auctions of three-, five- and ten-year bonds by Spain all allowed the government to borrow at lower interest rates than previously. By contrast, when the UK government sold 30-year bonds it had to pay 17 basis points more than at the previous such issue.
The story did as little lasting damage to sterling as earlier news that retail sales, excluding fuel, had fallen more quickly than expected in March, down by -0.8% instead of the forecast -0.5%. The consolation was that overall sales fell only by -0.7% rather than -0.8%. They were far from great figures but they were not bad enough to prevent sterling taking, almost by accident, the lead among major currencies. Its gains against the euro, the Canadian dollar and the Australian dollar could only be seen with a magnifying glass and its progress against the US dollar amounted to less than half a cent but it did rather better against the NZ dollar and the northern Scandinavian crowns.
There are no UK or US data today and nothing of any consequence from continental Europe beyond German producer prices and Italian industrial orders. The importance of this afternoon’s Canadian inflation data is diminished by the Bank of Canada’s decision two days ago to keep its 1% interest rate target unchanged.
In the FX world very little has changed in the last 24 hours. Today’s uninspiring agenda suggests that the next 24 will be similarly aimless. Have a good weekend.
A secondary market is a sine qua non for equities and bonds: investors would not buy them if they were obliged to hold them to maturity. By the same token, a secondary market in Wimbledon seats is admissible (unlike that for Wembley or Twickenham tickets). The secondary market in groceries has also long been considered legitimate; corner-shop proprietors buy at the cash-and-carry and sell on at a higher price. Sainsbury’s in Cheadle did likewise recently when the shop ran out of Warburton’s bread. An employee went to Iceland next door, bought two dozen loaves for £1 apiece and put them on Sainsbury’s shelf at £1.49. In the bond market it would have been called arbitrage; to bemused shoppers it looked more like taking the mickey.
For several years the practice of buying to sell at a higher price was the only one that made sense in the commodities market. Ten years ago gold was $350 an ounce, five years ago it was $800 and one year ago it was $1650. But for the last six months the price has been going down and in the last three days it has fallen out of bed. Since Thursday evening it has dropped from $1560 to $1375 an ounce. Nobody is entirely sure what started the rout but fingers are being pointed at the EU and its demand that Cyprus must sell excess gold reserves. It is not the 14 tons of Cypriot gold that give cause for concern. It is the 112 tons held by Greece, the 282 tons in Madrid, the 383 tons owned by Portugal and Italy’s 2,452 tons that make investors uneasy. If Cyprus is indeed to provide the template for future bailouts, the EU/IMF/ECB troika will insist on recipients helping themselves by offloading their gold.
The nervousness in commodities and precious metals was mirrored in the way investors treated currencies on Monday. As expected, things did calm down following yesterday’s early flight to safety but the consolidation had a clear “risk-off” tilt to it. As for exactly what constituted “safety”, investors were not certain, other than that the Japanese yen was the safest of the lot. It strengthened by three quarters of a yen and was Monday’s top performer. The US dollar, the euro, the Swiss franc, the Scandinavian crowns and the pound were not far behind, separated by a third of a euro cent or less. Among the commodity dollars it was the Aussie that fell furthest, losing nearly a cent to the pound. The South African rand took the biggest hit, down by -1.5% on the day.
Monday’s ecostats created no waves: Euroland logged a wider trade surplus, America reported a net outflow of long-term investments and the NAHB housing market index dropped two points to 42. The minutes of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s policy meeting did not shake the idea that the Bank could lower its 3% cash rate in the next couple of months.
After a week-long ecostat drought, today brings a downpour of data. The UK figures cover producer and consumer price inflation and there are also consumer price index readings from Euroland, the States and, tonight, New Zealand. ZEW publishes its surveys of German and eurozone investor confidence. Other North American data cover US housing starts, building permits and industrial production as well as Canadian manufacturing shipments.
Today’s main driver is likely, once again, to be commodity and equity prices. The UK inflation figures, whilst theoretically important, are unlikely to ruffle sterling’s feathers unless they are well off-target.
“Facebook” is a social networking portal which allows users to display pictures of their cats and send messages to one another. Originally the system did not distinguish between “friends” (acquaintances of acquaintances) and non-friends (the half dozen people not on that list); you could send a message to any of them for nothing. From now on though, Facebook will charge a fee for messages to non-friends, according to their popularity. To annoy Billy Nomates with unwanted mail will cost £0.71 and to pester Tom Daley, a champion diver, will incur a fee of £10.68. The price of a message to George Osborne has been set provisionally at £0.13.
That figure could change, as could the 88k monthly rise in US nonfarm payrolls announced on Friday. But the initial effect is always greater than that of any subsequent adjustment. Investors had been expecting an increase of around 191k for March and their disappointment was not alleviated by the 61k upward adjustment to the figures for January and February. As has once again become the norm, the weaker than expected economic statistic sent the US dollar lower. Compared with Friday’s opening levels it is down by a cent against the pound and by half a cent against the euro.
And there was even greater disappointment at the Canadian numbers. The net monthly change in employment there was -54.5k, the fall more than wiping out the previous month’s 50.7k increase. The news overshadowed a healthy ten point improvement in the Ivey purchasing managers’ index (PMI) to 61.6 and cost the Loonie half a US cent. It fell by a cent and a quarter against the pound.
The only figure sterling had to contend with was the Halifax house price index. It showed a monthly rise of 0.2% and an annual increase of 1.2%. The press release referred to “modest improvement” in the housing market and looked forward to “a modest increase” in house prices this year. It was all terribly modest and had no effect on the pound. As well as its gains against the Canadian and US dollars the pound went up by one NZ cent and one and a half Australian cents. It managed to pick up a quarter of a euro cent and was unchanged against the Swiss franc.
Sterling derived some benefit from a speech by Spencer Dale, the Bank of England’s chief economist. Talking to Asian business leaders he said that the idea of shifting the Bank’s monetary focus from inflation to growth was “dangerous talk”. His sentiments did not come as a surprise but were nevertheless reassuring to investors.
Figures released earlier today showed a six point decline in Australia’s construction sector PMI and a narrowing of Japan’s trade deficit. The Japanese figure had no effect on the yen, which has fallen by 7% against the pound since Easter as a result of the Bank of Japan’s more aggressive asset purchase programme.
A statistically quiet day lies ahead. From Europe come Swiss and German industrial production and Euroland investor confidence. After lunch the Bank of Canada publishes the results of its business outlook survey. Tonight brings the BRC retail sales monitor and the RICS housing price balance as well as Chinese inflation and Australian business confidence. Price movements in the Far East this morning were small and there is no reason to expect increased volatility during the London session
Yesterday’s newspapers did not really excel themselves with their April Fool stories. The Daily Express told readers they could book a suite at Buckingham Palace for £10k a night. The Mirror showed an unconvincing picture of Virgin’s new glass-bottomed plane. Perhaps the best spoof was the piece in the Telegraph describing the Slovenian finance minister’s confidence that his country will not need a Cyprus-style bailout and there will be no precautionary exodus of bank deposits. Bloomberg’s story about Cyprus hoping to negotiate easier bailout terms with the EU/IMF/ECB troika turned out to be true.
If there was little fun to be had from the media there was even less to be found by the currency investors and traders whose job it was to make something out of London’s four-day weekend. The City accounts for more than a third of all FX turnover*. That doesn’t just mean that when London is on holiday activity falls by a third, it means that liquidity disappears and the market dries up. There was some movement; it is relatively easy to push currencies around when liquidity is scarce. But for the most part investors were content to take it easy and do the bare minimum.
Over the four days the biggest winner was the Japanese currency, which strengthened by one yen against the pound and the euro and by one and a quarter against the US dollar. The dollar itself was tail-end Charlie, falling by a cent against the pound and three quarters of a cent against the euro. The three commodity dollars all made modest gains.
Thursday’s crop of economic statistics was vaguely disappointing but contained no real horrors. A 0.4% monthly rise on German retail sales was overshadowed by a larger than expected -2.2% annual fall. Fourth quarter US gross domestic product (GDP) was downgraded to an annualised 0.4%; that converts to quarterly growth of an almost invisible 0.1%. The Chicago purchasing managers’ index (PMI) fell short of expectations by four points at 52.4. Japanese CPI deflation accelerated to -0.7% and unemployment ticked up to 4.3%. On Friday a -16.4% annual fall in Greek retail sales was no great surprise and the Michigan survey of US consumer confidence surprised on the upside at 78.6.
Monday saw the opening shots in the monthly manufacturing sector PMI contest. The main one from China was slightly more positive at 50.9 and the main one from the States three points lower at 51.3. Australia’s performance of manufacturing index completed a year in the contraction zone, falling by a point to 44.5. Earlier this morning there was no reaction from the Australia when the reserve bank kept its Cash Rate unchanged at 3%.
Coming up today are manufacturing PMIs from Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Euroland and Britain. Only the Swiss measure is forecast to be in the growth zone above 50. Also out this morning are the German inflation data and unemployment figures from around the euro zone, which are not expected to look very pretty. The Bank of England releases figures for money supply, personal loans and mortgage approvals.
Sterling starts this morning looking a little out of sorts. After it’s broadly positive performance in March it might have to give something back this week.
*Source: The Bank for International Settlements’ Triennial Central Bank Survey 2010. A new one will be taking place this month.
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