India braced for a new era under Modi

Dear readers, it’s been a long while since I wrote a blog post and I must apologize for their absence. I have left my job at Credit Agricole CIB and will be moving from Hong Kong to Singapore to work for another bank. I am currently on gardening leave and am therefore not following market developments anywhere near as closely as I was until I start my new job at the end of June. Nonetheless, given the major events in India over recent days, with the victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections, I felt compelled to write something.

Firstly the fact that the BJP won a landslide victory with 282 seats out of a total of 543 ensures that for the first time in decades the government in India does not have to be encumbered by a wide range of political beliefs and views. The consequent inaction a wide ranging coalition would have entailed would lead to renewed policy paralysis. As it is the BJP can form a majority government, with Modi able to emulate the successful reform policies he implemented in his home state of Gujarat while he was Chief Minister there. Being a Gujarati I can’t help but be caught up in the euphoria of what this could mean for India.

In contrast the Congress party and its leaders from the Nehru/Ghandi dynasty suffered a massive defeat, not only throwing them into opposition but shoving them to the margins in terms of political strength. Admittedly there has been a lot of money that has poured into Indian stocks and bonds over recent months but this does not necessarily mean that a BJP majority was priced in. On my last visit to India many of the clients I met actually thought that Modi may have been ousted while it was not felt that he and the BJP would be able to gain an outright majority. In the event he proved doubters wrong. In other words there is still plenty of scope for upside for the rupee and Indian stocks and bonds.

Now before we all get too excited a dose of reality needs to be brought into the mix. The “Gujarat model” was one of rapid improvements in infrastructure, reduction in bureaucracy and red tape and an encouragement of foreign investment. Clearly nothing in India is going to change overnight and adapting the model implemented in Gujarat, a state of 60 million people, to a country of over 1 billion people will not be easy. There will also be risks in terms of social tensions given the more right wing views of Modi and his party. Nonetheless, the strong mandate given to Modi by the electorate was for tough reform and this is what Modi and his style of government is best at.

There is little to time for a Modi honeymoon. The country’s bloated fiscal deficit, persistent current account deficits, elevated inflation, high indebtedness in some sectors, job market rigidities, inconsistent tax policy and masses of red tape and corruption, are only a few of the issues to contend with in a country with a wide spectrum of socio economic standing and religious views. Modi may also have to show some new secular credentials to ensure that his policies do not fuel sectarian tensions, something that may not come easy.

The hope among Indians and foreign investors is that Modi can once again push the economy back onto its fight and move to growth rates closer to 8-9% rather than 4-5% that the country under Congress rule has settled into. The selection of officials especially the Finance Minister will give important policy clues while ensuring that the well regarded central bank governor Rajan retains his post will help solidify confidence. Having been disappointed so many times in the past it is tough not to be skeptical but it may finally be time to throw caution to the wind and give Modi the benefit of the doubt. If anyone is up to the job it appears that Modi has the right credentials for it.

CHF under pressure

In sharp contrast to AUD but for the same rationale (improving risk appetite and low volatility) the CHF has succumbed to pressure. Comments this week by Swiss National Bank officials highlighting their resolve to enforce the CHF cap, their belief that the currency is still overvalued, and are prepared to take further steps, highlight that the Swiss authorities wish for a much deeper correction lower in the currency. This is unsurprising as the CHF real effective exchange rate has been on a strengthening path over recent months, much to the likely chagrin of the SNB.

The fact that Swiss CPI inflation dropped back into negative territory on a YoY basis in February reinforces the need to further weaken the currency. Steps such as negative deposit rates and/or FX intervention cannot be ruled out. In the meantime, USD/CHF looks set to test resistance around 0.8930 (26 Feb high).

AUD supported but be wary of profit taking

AUD/USD broke above its 200 day moving average (0.9137) encouraged by upbeat comments about economic growth prospects from Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Stevens. The fact that AUD remains supported despite higher risk aversion overnight is encouraging.

A run of better than expected data including Q4 GDP, retail sales, trade and jobs report have underpinned the currency. Additionally bad news is good in the case of the China impact on AUD as weaker data has led to growing expectations of a stimulus package to boost China’s economy.

Against the background of some improvement in risk appetite, and low volatility, the AUD looks like an attractive bet. My view has been consistently constructive on the AUD over past months and I remain of the view that there are further gains in store although in the near term profit taking is expect to emerge around resistance at AUD/USD 0.9342.

Equities weaker, US yields lower, USD softer

The US Federal Reserve’s rejection of capital raising plans by several banks taken together with further confrontation between the US and Russia and a disappointing US durable goods orders report were sufficient to result in a sell off in equity markets, lower US yields and a weaker USD.

Gold failed to benefit in yet a further sign that its bull run has ended, with the metal honing in on its 200 day moving average at 1296.71. On the US data front headline February US durable goods orders beat expectations (2.2%) but core orders (-1.3%) were weaker than expected.

Although the lead for Asia is a weak one markets may still find some resilience due to expectations of policy stimulus from China. Similarly dovish talk from the European Central Bank will offer further support to market sentiment while undermining the EUR somewhat. On the data front today the main releases are US Q4 GDP revision (upward revision likely), and UK retail sales (rebound likely).

USD/JPY volatility at an extreme low

USD/JPY will continue to struggle to break higher in the short term, with the currency pair restrained by capped US yields. Indeed US Treasury yields have slipped over recent days. The range bound trading pattern for USD/JPY has resulted in a declining trend in both implied and realized volatility. The drop in volatility has been particularly sharp, with 1 month volatility at an extreme level according to our z-score analysis.

The implication is that it is cheap to USD/JPY volatility although it may need a trigger from a further increase in US yields and / or major improvement in risk appetite to spur an increase in volatility. Comments by the Bank of Japan’s Iwata yesterday that its not necessarily good if the JPY keeps depreciating is not conducive for higher volatility in the currency pair but likely further stimulus from the BoJ alongside wider yield differentials with the US, will mean that downward JPY pressure will resume soon at a more rapid pace in the months ahead.

High degree of investor caution

Although risk aversion has declined from recently elevated levels there is still a high degree of caution from investors who are unwilling to take long term bets. The causes of market angst have remained unchanged over recent weeks namely Ukraine tensions, weaker growth in China and US data that has performed below expectations.

It is therefore unsurprising that in the wake of a weaker than forecast reading for Chinese manufacturing confidence yesterday and talk of more sanctions against Russia, European and US equity markets fell overnight and Asian equities have began the day on softer footing.

The Markit US manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) edged lower, but unlike the Chinese PMI, which remained below the 50 boom/bust level, the US reading was healthy at 55.5 in March. The Eurozone equivalent edged lower but continued to show that recovery was still in shape, with the March reading at 53.

The reverberations from Fed Chairman Yellen’s comments last week also inflicting some damage, with gold prices in particular succumbing to pressure and verging on a test of the 200 day moving average around 1296.83. A heavy slate of data today includes the German March IFO survey, UK CPI inflation, US March consumer confidence and February new home sales.

Eurozone data releases this week

There are several first tier Eurozone data releases on tap this week including March flash purchasing managers indices (PMIs), preliminary HICP inflation and the March IFO business confidence survey.

We look for a slight increase in the “flash” composite PMI, with the data restrained by concerns about China and the Ukraine. Inflation in March could move lower, while the German IFO survey is expected to flat. The data will not be particularly spectacular but ought not to detract from the fact that growth momentum in the Eurozone is picking up.

Lower inflation may provide more support to lower policy rates from the European Central Bank but some of the pressure on the ECB to ease policy rates may have eased given the decline in the EUR last week.

After last week’s sharp drop EUR/USD is likely to consolidate around 1.3800 over coming days.

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