Saturated by good news

We are currently moving into an environment where economic data is becoming less and less influential in moving markets and this could continue for some weeks.  The bottom line is that so much recovery news is in the price that the continuing run of better than forecast data are having only a limited impact.  Over recent days this run has included firmer than forecast readings on US manufacturing sentiment, consumer sentiment, housing activity and durable goods orders.  The market has become saturated with good news and is showing signs of fatigue.  

Just take a look at the reaction to the latest numbers. Equity markets barely flinched in reaction to positive data including a surge in new home sales and a jump in durable goods orders.  In Europe, the German IFO recorded its biggest increase since 1996.  Perhaps the subdued market reaction was due to the details of some of the reports which could have been considered as not as upbeat as the headlines suggested.  However, this explain is tenuous at best.  

News that China’s state council is studying restrictions on overcapacity in industries including steel and cement will not have helped market sentiment as concerns about Chinese growth are likely to resurface. Nonetheless, the most likely explanation for the lack of momentum in markets is fatigue.  There have been plenty of positive data surprises over recent weeks and markets have become increasingly desensitised to such news. 

Another explanation of the failure of positive data to boost sentiment is that risk appetite is almost back to pre-crisis levels according to many indicators I follow.  Indeed, further impetus for risk currencies will be more limited in the months ahead as the room for a further decline in risk aversion is becoming more limited.

This combined with growing fatigue will have interesting consequences. Firstly it suggests a degree of dollar and yen resilience over coming weeks and growing pressure on risk trades, especially commodity currencies which will suffer disproportionately to fears about Chinese growth and lower commodities demand. 

Nonetheless, consolidation in the weeks ahead rather than any sharp moves is the most likely path.  Although the overall trend of improving risk appetite will continue it is already becoming evident that it will take a lot more to drive risk appetite higher than a steady stream of data showing that the global economy is turning around. In any case, currencies have become less sensitive to the gyrations in risk suggesting that other influences will be sought in the months ahead.  In the meantime range trading will continue. 

The reduced swings in currencies have taken FX largely off the radar as far as policy makers are concerned and it is difficult to see the topic being a major issue at upcoming policy meetings. Lower currency volatility is clearly a boon for policy makers and reflects some “normalisaiton” in currency markets. It perhaps also reflects the fact that FX valuations are less of out synch than they were a few months back, with the USD far less overvalued against many currencies.

Risk gyrations and FX positioning

I must admit it has been quite tough to get a handle on the sharp moves in markets over recent days. Market sentiment shifted from positive to negative and back again in a matter of hours, meaning that anyone wanting to put on a long term trading position has had to have had a significant risk tolerance to hold onto their positions.

Attention was focused squarely on Chinese stocks last week but market fears over tighter regulation eased as the week progressed. Market sentiment was helped by strong existing home sales data in the US, continuing the run of better than forecast US economic data releases. Globally data releases mirrored this tone.

A cautiously upbeat tone from central bankers at the Jackson Hole symposium sets up a positive backdrop for markets. Although Fed Chairman Bernanke noted that the rebound in growth was likely to be slow and ECB President Trichet talked about a “bumpy road ahead” the overall tone was positive.

Importantly there was no indication that a reversal in monetary policy was in sight, with the Fed’s Kohn even indicating that there was no inconsistency between the Fed maintaining low rates for an “extended period” and keeping inflation low. The comments should help to ensure that markets do not misinterpret the signs of recovery as a cue to begin hiking interest rates.

This week’s data slate will maintain the run of good news. However, there are a few risks. Consensus forecasts look for US consumer confidence to improve in August but the weak labour market situation may hold some downside risks for the Conference Board measure of confidence just as it did for the Michigan reading.

US durable goods orders are set to bounce back and new home sales are likely to echo at least some of the gains in existing home sales last week. In the eurozone, attention will focus on the August German IFO survey and this release is likely to mirror the gains in the PMI, with a healthy gain in the headline reading expected.

Risk trades continue will be favoured after overcoming last week’s setbacks keeping the USD under downward pressure but within ranges and risk currencies including AUD, NZD, CAD and NOK under upward pressure. The USD index is verging on testing its 5th August low of 77.428, whist the JPY is also weaker though its moves may be more limited ahead of upcoming elections.

The IMM report shows that speculative investors have cut pared back USD short positions further, but the shift in positioning was relatively small from the previous week, with net aggregate USD short positions at -94.8k contracts compared to -96.1 in the previous week. Notable shifts in positioning over the week include a cut back in net EUR long positions to their lowest level since the week of 5th May 2009.

Commodity currencies suffered some pullback in net long positioning too with speculative AUD and NZD contracts being cut although net CAD long positions did increase slightly. Given the resumption in risk appetite into this week it seems highly likely that positioning will reverse and net USD short positions will increase.

Chinese stocks enter bear market

Markets can only be described as fickle as they gyrate back and forth depending on the latest news or earnings report and as a result direction is changing not just daily but also intra-day.  Investors in most asset classes will continue to focus on stocks especially the recently underperforming Chinese equity market (Shanghai A share index) which officially moved into bearish territory after falling by over 20% from its early August high. 

Various reasons for the drop can be cited including regulator’s curbs on the stock market, high valuations, absence of new fund launches, limits on institutional buying,  high level of new accounts adding to volatility, tighter regulations on real estate, etc, but whatever the reason the direction has been clearly downwards and the impact is being felt across markets.

The turnaround in equity markets during Wednesday’s sessions was dramatic and was led by the turnaround in Chinese stocks which dragged other Asian bourses down with it.   This outweighed any positive sentiment from Market positives so far this week including a strong reading for the German August ZEW survey which surpassed forecasts by a large margin.  This followed the extension of the TALF by the Fed, and a jump in the US Empire manufacturing survey at the beginning of the week.  

Aside from weaker equities the usual FX beneficiaries including the dollar and yen strengthened on the back of the Chinese stock rout.   S&P’s affirmation of China’s credit ratings and positive comments from China’s stats office about the economic outlook in the months ahead  failed to support sentiment.  This would have been expected to provide a positive backdrop for Asian markets but Chinese stock market jitters provided a strong headwind to local markets. 

Overall most measures of risk have seen a substantial improvement over the past few months but there is no doubt that nerves are creeping back into the market.   This time the nervousness is coming from China and worryingly it is swamping the effect of any good news on the global economy and earnings.   This may prove to be a blip on the long road to recovery in risk appetite but it is difficult to ignore such a sharp fall in Chinese stocks without looking at the potential contagion to other equity markets.  

On the FX front those currencies that are most correlated with risk aversion such as the Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar, South African rand, Indonesian rupiah, Brazilian real and Mexican peso will gyrate in relation to the moves in risk appetite.   These currencies have had the highest correlations with risk aversion over the past month and in the current environment will come under some pressure at least until risk sentiment changes again, which in this market could happen at any moment and without warning.

All eyes on Chinese stocks

Equity markets extended their declines overnight as European and US stocks were smacked across the board.  One of the biggest pull backs has occurred in the Chinese stock market where stocks are down by around 17% since early (3rd) August although stocks are still up close to 73% on the year.  Some of this could be on fears of monetary tightening in China as well as missed profit estimates. 

Risk trades were sold and the dollar and yen strengthened whilst bond markets continued to rally.  News that contributed to the move could have included a sharp 35.7% YoY decline in FDI flows to China in July as well as a broad tightening of lending standards in Q2 according to the latest Senior Loan Officer survey by the Fed.  In contrast there was some positive news on the manufacturing front as the US Empire manufacturing survey jumped 13 points to its highest reading since November 2007. 

The Fed announced that the TALF with a capacity of as much as $1 trillion will expire on June 30 rather than December 31 but for other asset backed securities and CMBS sold before January the plan was extended by three months.   This extension failed to prevent a drop in financial shares overnight with the S&P financials index down 4.2%. 

Commodity prices also extended their drop, with the CRB index now down by around 5.6% since 5 August.   This will continue to play negatively for commodity currencies including the Australian, NZ and Canadian dollars, with the currencies looking vulnerable to more downside today.   Expectations of rising oil inventories and a firmer dollar tone are also playing negatively for commodities. 

Some relief may come today from firmer economic data expected in the US and Eurozone.   US housing starts and building permits are set to reveal further signs of stabilisation in the US housing market whilst the German ZEW survey will rise in August on the back of better economic data and past stronger equity market performance.  It is debatable how much economic data can help counter the worsening in equity sentiment but it may at least provide a semblance of relief.  

The dollar index is trading around the top of its recent range and sentiment for the currency has clearly become less negative as reflected in the latest CFTC Commitments of Traders Report which showed a sharp pull back in net aggregate dollar short positions in the latest week.  

Nonetheless, the dollar is likely to show little inclination to break out of its recent ranges against most currencies.  Overall FX market attention will focus on the Shanghai composite to lead the way in terms of risk appetite and overall direction. Thin holiday trading will leave the markets prone to exaggerated moves over the near term.

Risk appetite dented

The surprise decline in the Michigan reading of US consumer confidence which dropped to 63.2 in August put a dampener on risk appetite at the end of last week helping to fuel a sea of red for most US and European equity markets at the close of play on Friday.   Nonetheless, FX markets remained range-bound, albeit with the dollar taking a firmer bias at the end of the week.

The impact of the drop in confidence is likely to prove short lived as risk appetite continues to improve this week although don’t look for big market moves as summer trading conditions continue to dominate.  For the most part the data releases should not throw any spanners in the works over coming days as a positive tone to data is set to be retained.  

The highlights this week include more GDP data from Japan and Norway following surprise increases in growth from Germany and France in Q2 last week.  Japan’s release showed a marginally softer than expected 0.9% QoQ increase in GDP with growth led by external demand and government stimulus measures.  In contrast, capital spending continued to remain weak.  

US numbers are set to show further improvement as likely reflected in manufacturing surveys including the August Empire survey and the Philly Fed.  Similarly housing data including housing starts and existing homes sales will point to more stabilisation whilst Fed Chairman Bernanke is set to deliver a similar tone to the recent FOMC statement. 

The highlight of the European calendar is the German ZEW survey and flash August PMIs.  Firmer equities point to a higher ZEW whilst manufacturing indices are likely to reveal a slower pace of contraction.  In the UK the minutes of the BoE MPC meeting are likely to reveal a unanimous vote for extending QE policy. 

On balance, the beginning of the week is likely to see a bit of a risk aversion led sell off in risk currencies including commodity currencies such as the Australian and NZ dollars as well as weaker Asian currencies led by the likes of the Korean won but the pressure is unlikely to last for long.  Nonetheless, Commodity currencies will face another layer of pressure from the sharp drop in commodity prices at the end of last week as reflected in the drop in the CRB index.

An unusual dollar reaction

Although many market participants are on summer holidays this has not prevented some interesting market moves in the wake of yet more improvement in economic data and earnings.  The most noteworthy release was the July US jobs report which revealed a better than forecast 247,000 job losses and a surprise decline in the unemployment rate to 9.4%.  Moreover, past revisions added 43,000 to the tally.

Although it is difficult to get too optimistic given that job losses since December 2007 have totalled 6.7 million, the biggest drop since WW2, the direction is clearly one of improvement.  Nonetheless, markets were given a dose of reality by the drop in US consumer credit in June, which gives further reason to doubt the ability of the US consumer to contribute significantly to recovery.

The data spurred a further rally in stocks and a sell of in Treasuries.   Such a reaction was unsurprising but the more intriguing move was seen in the US dollar, which after some initial slippage managed a broad based appreciation in contrast to the usual sell off in the wake of better data and improved risk appetite.

It is too early to draw conclusions but the dollar reaction suggests that yield considerations are perhaps beginning to show renewed signs of influencing currencies following a long period where the FX/interest rate relationship was practically non-existent.  Indeed, the strengthening in the dollar corresponded with a hawkish move in interest rate futures as the market probability of a rate hike by the beginning of next year increased.

Since the crisis began the biggest driver of currencies has been risk aversion, a factor that relegated most other influences including the historically strong driver, interest rate differentials, to the background.  More specifically, much of the strengthening in the dollar during the crisis was driven by US investor repatriation from foreign asset markets as deleveraging intensified.   This repatriation far outweighed foreign selling of US assets and in turn boosted the dollar.

Over the past few months this reversed as risk appetite improved and the pace of deleveraging lessened.  Ultra easy US monetary policy also put the dollar in the unfamiliar position of becoming a funding currencies for higher yielding assets and currencies though admittedly this was all relative as yields globally dropped.   The dollar also suffered from concerns about its role as a reserve currency but failed to weaken dramatically as much of the concern expressed by central banks was mere rhetoric.

Where does this leave the dollar now?  Risk will remain a key driver of the dollar but already its influence is waning as reflected in the fact that the dollar has remained range bound over recent weeks despite an improvement in risk appetite.   As for interest rates their influence is set to grow as markets price in rate hikes and as in the past, more aggressive expectations of relative interest rate hikes will play the most positive for the respective currency.

It is still premature for interest rates to overtake risk as the principal FX driver.   Even if rates increase in importance I still believe interest rate markets are overly hawkish in the timing of rate hikes. A reversal in tightening expectations could yet push the dollar lower.  This is highly possible given the benign inflationary environment and massive excess capacity in the US economy.

Eventually the dollar will benefit from the shift in interest rate expectations as markets look for the Fed to be more aggressive than other central banks in reversing policy but this could take some time. Until then the dollar is a long way from a real recovery and will remain vulnerable for several months to come as risk appetite improves further.

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