Why Buy Asian FX (Part 1)

Given all the attention on Greece and European fiscal/debt woes over recent weeks it’s been easy to forget about the success story of Asian economies. Of course, there has been a lot of attention on China and the international pressure to revalue its currency. However, the stability and resilience of Asian economies has been impressive throughout the financial crisis and recent Greek saga, helping to boost the attraction of Asian currencies.

Asia has managed to avoid the fiscal/debt problems associated with many developed economies, due to much better fiscal management over recent years. There are a couple of exceptions however, including the Philippines and India, but the fiscal positions in these countries have seen an improvement and are unlikely to lead to anywhere near the same sort of problems associated with Greece and other European countries.

So far this year capital inflows into Asian equity markets have much been stronger than 2009, albeit after a rocky start to the year when flows dried up due to rising risk aversion. Since then inflows have resumed strongly. The comparison to 2008 is even more dramatic as much of Asia registered significant capital outflows that year. South Korea, India and Taiwan, respectively, have led the way in term of inflows into equity markets in 2010, with inflows of $4.3 billion, $3.7 billion and $3.3 billion, respectively.

It is no coincidence that Asian currencies are most sensitive to the performance of Asian equity markets, with strong capital inflows and rising equities leading to stronger currency performance. Asia is set to continue to be a strong destination for equity flows over coming months, which given the high Asian equity correlation with local currencies, will lead to further appreciation in most Asian FX. A likely CNY revaluation in China will also help to fuel further Asian FX upside.

FX / Economic Preview

The European Union (EU) aid package for Greece and extension of collateral requirements by the European Central Bank (ECB) helped return a semblance of confidence to markets. Although the probability of a Greek default now looks extremely small, further austerity measures, fiscal issues in other EU countries and the negative impact on growth that all of this implies, suggest that Europe will be plagued by various problems for some time yet.

As a result of more favourable market conditions Greece is set to launch a syndicated bond issues today or tomorrow of up EUR 5 billion according to press reports. Attention will also turn to Greek debt rollovers, beginning with EUR 8.2 billion on April 20.

Improving sentiment following the Greece deal has extended to the EUR, with the currency bouncing off its lows around 1.3267. EUR/USD will now look to break through resistance around 1.3446, which would set up a test of 1.3516. There is plenty of scope for short-covering to help the EUR as reflected in the latest IMM Commitment of Traders’ report (a gauge of speculative market positioning) which revealed net EUR positions reaching yet another record low in the week to 23rd March. Whilst sovereign/official buying interest may keep EUR/USD supported this week the currency pair is best played as a sell on rallies.

A similar assessment applies for GBP. Speculative sentiment for the currency also hit a record low in the latest week but unlike the Greek deal helping the EUR, last week’s UK budget has done little to boost GBP’s prospects. Moreover, a report in the Financial Times highlighting hedge funds bets against GBP, suggests that there are still plenty of headwinds against the currency.

Volumes are set to thin out this week ahead of upcoming holidays, whilst the US March jobs report at the end of the week will likely prevent moves out of current ranges ahead of its release. The consensus forecast is for a 190k increase in non-farm payrolls though much of this is likely to reflect hiring for the 2010 US consensus and a rebound from adverse weather effects in February.

In Europe March economic confidence surveys will be watched closely to determine how much damage Greece and general fiscal woes are having on sentiment. Some improvement, in line with the Eurozone Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) and the German IFO business confidence survey, is expected, which will help to give further, albeit limited relief to the EUR.

The Japanese data slate kicked off the week in good form, with the release of February retail sales data, revealing its biggest annual increase in 12-years. It is difficult to see the recovery in sales taking much greater hold given persistent deflation pressures however, and part of the gain probably reflects the government’s shopping incentive program.

Aside from industrial production and jobs data in Japan the key release will be the results of the Q1 Tankan survey on Wednesday. The survey of manufacturers’ confidence is set to show further improvement. USD/JPY is likely to remain supported around 91.67 but will need a further widening in US/Japan 10-year bond yield spreads to push higher.

US Dollar Back On Top As Yields Rise

Two issues are driving markets and both are playing negatively for sentiment; the rise in G7 bond yields and the outcome of the EU summit. At a time when G7 bond yields have been pushing higher the poor response to the US $32 billion 7-year note sale contributed to a further increase in yield. The sale resulted in a yield of 3.374%, which was higher than expected, and a bid/cover ratio of 2.61. A combination of large US Treasury supply, medium term funding issues and signs of improving growth suggest no let up for US Treasuries.

The most reactive currency to yield differentials is currently USD/JPY. The 1-month correlation between USD/JPY and US/Japan bond yield differentials is a high 0.85. The spike in US 10-year Treasury yields especially relative to JGB yields (by around 21 basis points this week) is the main contributor to the jump in USD/JPY over recent days. Given the bearish outlook for US bonds in the near term, it suggests more upside for USD/JPY but also increasingly for other currencies against the USD as the importance of yield increases. Immediate USD/JPY technical resistance is seen around 93.21, with support at 91.87.

The other event of note yesterday was developments surrounding Greece in the European Union summit though in truth it was probably the strong comments by ECB President Trichet that had the bigger impact on EUR sentiment. The final EU communiqué noted the readiness for bilateral loans to Greece and substantial International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing in a Greek aid mechanism. Importantly and a likely sop to Germany, any aid will not contain a subsidy for Greece. Aid by the EU and IMF will only be provided in the event of “very serious difficulties”.

The EU agreement means that no money will be forthcoming immediately, but at least there will be a back stop should Greece have financing difficulties over coming weeks, which will act as an important safety net ahead of substantial Greek debt rollovers. This news was supplemented by the fact that ECB will not raise its minimum collateral requirements at the end of the year, which means that Greek debt will not be excluded in the event of a ratings downgrade. This is good news for Greece.

The combination of the fact that Greece will have to borrow money only at market rates, ongoing worries about other EU countries fiscal problems and European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet putting somewhat of a dampener on sentiment by criticizing IMF involvement in the deal, will keep the EUR under pressure. Although Trichet later reversed his comments, the damage was already done and any relief to EUR/USD will be short-lived. The currency pair is increasingly poised for a further downside move, with the next target at 1.3213 on the path towards an eventual test of 1.3000.

Greek Saga Rumbles On – Does Anybody Care?

The debate over Greece continues to rumble on. France and Spain requested a separate summit meeting of the 16 heads of eurozone countries immediately before the full 27-member EU summit starting tomorrow but this was met with resistance. Meanwhile, Germany has called for “a substantial contribution” from the IMF towards a Greek aid package, whilst maintaining that no EU deal will be reached for Greece at the summit.

Frankly, the whole Greek saga has become extremely boring, with the lack of agreement about how to fix it doing little to inspire confidence. In particular the fractured opinion amongst EU leaders highlights the difficulties in reaching an agreement in a union made up of so many conflicting interests. At most the summit may agree on the conditions for a rescue package for Greece rather than a package itself. This will leave markets unimpressed,

US new home sales data today is likely to paint a slightly better picture with a small gain expected, albeit following the 11.2% plunge in the previous month. Sales will be helped by the extension of the home buyer tax credit. The US February durable goods orders report is also released today, with a small increase expected. A smaller gain in transport orders suggests that the 2.6% jump last month will not be repeated.

In Europe, the key release is the March German IFO business climate survey and a rebound is likely following February’s decline, helped by warmer weather and a weaker EUR. Flash readings of Eurozone March purchasing managers indices (PMIs) are also released but these are unlikely to extend gains from the previous month. Despite expectations of firmer data the EUR/USD is vulnerable to a further decline, with support around 1.3432 in sight for an imminent test.

Attention in the UK will turn to the pre-election Budget and particularly the government’s plans to cut spending and reduce the fiscal deficit. Failure to provide a credible blue print to restore fiscal credibility will damage confidence, heightening the risks of an eventual sovereign ratings downgrade and more pressure on GBP which appears destined for another drop below 1.50 versus USD.

Most currencies have remained within ranges and the most interesting currency pair is EUR/CHF having failed to react to verbal warnings from the Swiss National Bank (SNB) about excessive CHF strength. EUR/CHF looks vulnerable to a further decline unless the SNB follows up rhetoric with action. Even if there is FX intervention by the SNB it may prove to be a temporary barrier to a market with an eye on the psychologically important 1.4000 level.

Despite the pressure on the Japanese government and Bank of Japan (BoJ) to engineer a weaker JPY, export performance has proven resilient, with exports jumping 45.3% on the year in February, helped by the strength of demand from Asia. Unfortunately this is doing little to end Japan’s deflation problem and even if there is less urgency for a weaker JPY to boost exports, JPY weakness will certainly help to reduce deflationary pressures in the economy. USD/JPY is stubbornly clinging to the 90.00 level, with little inclination to move in either direction.

Greek Confusion, India Tightening

It is highly interesting that markets could take fright from a rate hike in India but this appears to be what has happened. India’s surprise 25bps rate hike has provoked another bout of risk aversion whilst the lack of any concrete agreement on a framework for a Greek bail out dealt a further blow to confidence. FX tensions between the US and China have not helped, with China threatening retaliation to any US move to name the country as a currency manipulator in the mid April US Treasury report.

Should we really be worried by a rate hike in India or China? Whilst the India rate move reflects the fact that emerging market central banks are moving far more aggressively to raise rates than their G7 counterparts, global fears that India’s move will dampen recovery prospects are unfounded. Monetary tightening in India and China and other economies is taking place against the backdrop of economic strength not weakness.

As such the global impact on growth should be limited. Rising inflation pressure in Asia is reflection of the much quicker economic recovery, relatively low rates and undervalued currencies in the region. Not only will central banks in Asia have to raise interest rates but will also have to allow further currency appreciation.

There is still plenty of confusion about a bail out for Greece ahead of the 25-26th March EU summit. German Chancellor Merkel dampened expectations of a bailout by stating that it was not even on the agenda for the summit. In contrast, EU President Barroso has pushed EU members to agree on an explicit stand-by aid agreement for Greece as soon as possible.

There is also disagreement about whether there should be any IMF involvement, with Germany favouring some help from the Fund whilst France opposes it. Meanwhile, the Greek Prime Minister has reportedly given an ultimatum that should no aid plan be forthcoming at the EU summit, Greece will turn to the IMF for assistance.

All of this suggests more downside for EUR/USD, with a test of support around 1.3422 looming. In the event that the EU summit offers good news for Greece, EUR/USD sentiment could turn quickly so a degree of caution is warranted. Speculative sentiment for the EUR has improved according to the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data for the week to 16th March, with net short EUR positions at their lowest since the beginning of February. Nonetheless, the short covering seen over the past week could come to an abrupt end should there be no aid package for Greece.

The most volatile currency over the past week was GBP/USD and after hitting a high of around 1.5382 it has slid all the way back to around the 1.5000 level. Much of this was related to the gyrations in EUR/USD but GBP took on a life of its own towards the end of the week and has not been helped by comments by BoE MPC member Sentence who highlighted the risk of a “double-dip” recession in the UK.

GBP is highly undervalued and market positioning is close to a record low but a sustainable recovery looks unachievable at present. Attention this week will centre on the 2010 UK Budget announcement and markets will scrutinise the details of how the government plans to cut the burgeoning budget deficit. Failure to restore some credibility to the government’s plans will dent GBP sentiment further and lead to a sharper decline against both the EUR and USD.

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