USD pressure, EUR resilience, GBP whipsawed

Speculation the Fed will begin a new program of asset purchases or QE2 as soon as November is intensifying. The weaker than expected reading for US consumer confidence in September released on Tuesday has only added to this expectation as sentiment continues to be hit by job market concerns. Against this background the USD remains under strong downward pressure, with little sign of any turnaround.

The prospects of further USD debasing as well as intervention in many countries to prevent their currencies from strengthening against the USD continues to power gold prices which hit a new record high having breezed through the $1300 per troy ounce mark. In the current environment it is hard to see gold prices turning much lower although there may be some risk of profit taking in the weeks ahead.

The EUR remains a key beneficiary of USD weakness but this currency has problems of its own to contend with. Indeed, peripheral debt concerns, especially with regard to Ireland and to a lesser extent Portugal have increased, with borrowing costs rising as the yield on their debt widens against core eurozone debt. The stronger EUR will only make it harder for these countries to achieve any sort of recovery and could also damage the stronger exporting countries of Northern Europe led by Germany.

So far however, the EUR has managed to show some impressive resilience to renewed peripheral country sovereign debt concerns including comments by S&P about the high costs of rescuing an Irish Bank. Perhaps the knowledge that there is a still a huge bailout fund from the EU and IMF available if needed and also the prospect that the ECB will increase its buying of eurozone debt, has provided a buffer for the EUR.

At some point the ECB may be forced to join the battle in at least attempting to talk its currency lower but at this stage the central bank is showing no inclination to either talk down the currency or physically intervene to weaken the EUR. In the meantime, EUR/USD is likely to strengthen further despite the likely negative impact on European growth, with the currency likely to set its sights on an eventual break above 1.40.

One currency that may struggle in the wake of expectations of Fed QE2 is GBP. Uncertainty over whether the Bank of England will follow the Fed in implementing further quantitative easing could see GBP lag the gains in other currencies against the USD. Conflicting comments from MPC members Posen who noted that there may be a need for further QE in the UK to support the faltering economy were countered by Sentance who noted that there was no need for more QE. GBP/USD is likely be whipsawed as the debate continues and is set to lose further ground against the EUR.

FX Tension

On September 22 1985 the governments of France, West Germany, Japan, US and UK signed the Plaza Accord which agreed to sharply weaken the USD. At this time it was widely agreed that the USD was overly strong and needed to fall sharply and consequently these countries engineered a significant depreciation of the USD.

It is ironic that 25 years later governments are once again intervening in various ways and that the USD is once again facing a precipitous decline as the Fed moves towards implementing further quantitative easing. This time central banks are acting unilaterally, however, and there is little agreement between countries. For instance Japan’s authorities found no help from the Fed or any other central bank in its recent actions to buy USD/JPY.

So far Japan’s FX interventions have been discreet after the initial USD/JPY buying on 15 September. The fact that Japan is less inclined to advertise its FX intervention comes as little surprise given the intensifying pressure from the US Congress on China for not allowing its currency, the CNY to strengthen. Tensions have deepened over recent weeks and the backing of a bill last week by an important Congressional committee to allow US companies to seek tariffs on Chinese imports suggests that the situation has taken a turn for the worse.

The softly softly approach to Japan’s FX intervention and US/China friction reflects the fact that unlike in 1985 we may be entering a period in which currency and in turn trade tensions are on the verge of intensifying sharply against the background of subdued global economic recovery.

The Fed’s revelation that it is moving closer to implementing further quantitative easing has shifted the debate to when QE2 occurs rather than if, with a November move moving into focus. Clearly the USD took the news negatively and will likely remain under pressure for a prolonged period as the simple fact of more USD supply weighs heavily on the currency. Markets will be able to garner more clues to the timing of QE2, with a plethora of Fed speakers on tap over coming days.

This week the US economic news will be downbeat, with September consumer and manufacturing confidence surveys likely to register declines, with consumer sentiment weighed down by the weakness in job market conditions. Personal income and spending will also be of interest and gains are expected for both. There will be plenty of attention on the core PCE deflator given that further declines could give clues to the timing of QE2.

Attention in Europe will centre on Wednesday’s recommendations for legislation on “economic governance” from the European Commission. Proposed penalties for fiscal indiscipline may include withholding of funding and/or voting restrictions but such measures would be politically contentious. Measures to enforce fiscal discipline ought to be positive for markets given the renewed tensions in peripheral bond markets in the eurozone.

The EUR was a major outperformer last week benefiting from intensifying US QE speculation and will set its sights on technical resistance (20 April high) around 1.3523 in the short-term. Notably EUR speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time this year according to the CFTC IMM data, reflecting the sharp shift in speculative appetite for the currency over recent weeks. The EUR has been surprisingly resilient to renewed sovereign debt concerns and similarly softer data will not inflict much damage to the currency this week.

Ready for Fed QE2

The USD was already under pressure ahead of the Fed FOMC decision last night, with the EUR benefiting in particular from successful debt auctions in Ireland and Spain. The Fed statement resulted in a further lurch lower for the USD index as it fell through the 81.00 level on its way to testing the August low of 80.09. EUR/USD broke important technical resistance levels moving above its 200-day moving average (1.3215). In contrast, gold prices continued to surge hitting a new record high whilst 2-year Treasury yields fell to an all-time low.

The US Federal Reserve confirmed that it was ready to ease if needed. Although the decision to leave the Fed funds target rate at 0% to 0.25% unchanged and commitment to maintain exceptionally low levels of the rate for an “extended period” came as no surprise there was a subtle change in the language of the statement regarding further easing. The Fed noted that it was “prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed” a shift from the previous wording that it “will employ its tools as necessary”.

It appears to be a case of not if but when the Fed embarks on further quantitative easing and/or other policy accommodation. Once again the Fed offered no guideposts to determine the timing of easing and the decision will ultimately be data dependent. Nonetheless, the bias has clearly shifted towards more balance sheet expansion.

We expect core inflation to decline further over the coming months although we do not forecast a drop to as low as 0.5%. Nonetheless, declining core CPI could lead to the Fed’s disinflation concerns intensifying. Indeed, providing further rationale for the Fed’s conditional easing bias was the particularly dovish stance on inflation in the FOMC statement.

If it wasn’t obvious before it has become increasingly clear now that the USD will not relinquish its role as the ultimate funding currency for a long time to come. Although interest rate differentials are not yet the main driver for most currency pairs, with risk aversion retaining this role for now, there is a very high correlation between certain high yielding currencies and their respective interest rate differentials against the USD.

For instance, there is a high and significant correlation between interest rate differentials between Japan, Australia, Canada and the US and their respective currency pairs. AUD/USD is one to watch as the currency hit a fresh 25 month high overnight. Although the AUD looks rich at current levels, the shift in relative yield with the US overnight provides a further underpinning to the currency, with parity being talked about once again.

Even USD/JPY moved lower in the wake of the Fed statement dropping just below 85.00 although the threat of further official Japanese FX intervention will likely prevent a sharp drop in the currency pair. It will be interesting to see how far the market is prepared to go, with further threats of FX intervention by Prime Minister Kan overnight. Despite the threats the narrowing in US / Japan bond yields overnight suggests more downside pressure on USD/JPY and a fresh challenge for the Japanese authorities.

The Week Ahead

Equity markets and risk trades have generally performed well over the last couple of weeks, with for example the S&P 500 around 7.5% higher since its late August low, whilst equity and currency volatility have been generally low, the latter despite some hefty FX intervention by the Japanese authorities which did provoke a spike in USD/JPY volatility last week.

Risk appetite took a knock at the end of last week in the wake of worries that Ireland may seek EU / IMF assistance although this was denied by Irish officials. A similar worry inflicted Portugal, and as a result peripheral bond spreads were hit. Sovereign worries in Europe have not faded quickly and bond auctions in Greece, Spain and Portugal will garner plenty of attention this week. Renewed worries ahead of the auctions suggest that the market reception could be difficult.

Attention will swiftly turn to the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting tomorrow and in particular at any shift in Fed stance towards additional quantitative easing following the decision at the August FOMC meeting to maintain the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Given the recent improvement in US economic data the Fed is set to assess incoming data before deciding if further measures are needed.

Housing data in the US will also garner plenty of attention, with several releases scheduled this week. Increases in August housing starts, building permits, existing and new home sales are also expected. Whilst this may give the impression of housing market improvement, for the most part the gains will follow sharp declines previously, with overall housing market activity remaining weak following the expiry of the government tax credit.

Weakness in house prices taken together with a drop in equity markets over the quarter contributed to a $1.5 trillion drop in US household net wealth in Q2. Wealth had been recovering after its decline from Q2 2007 but renewed weakness over the last quarter will not bode well for consumer spending. Household wealth is around $12.4 trillion lower than its peak at the end of Q2 2007.

Aside from the impact of renewed sovereign concerns, European data will not give the EUR much assistance this week either, with Eurozone September flash PMIs and the German IFO survey of business confidence set to weaken as business and manufacturing confidence comes off the boil. If the Fed maintains its policy stance whilst risk aversion increases over coming days the USD may find itself in a firmer position to recoup some of its losses both against the EUR and other currencies.

This will leave EUR/USD vulnerable to drop back down to around support in 1.2955 in the very short-term. As indicated by the CTFC IMM data there has been further short EUR position covering last week whilst sentiment for the USD deteriorated, suggesting increased room for short-USD covering in the event of higher risk aversion.

The impact of Sweden’s election outcome over the weekend is unlikely to do much damage to the SEK despite the fact that the coalition government failed to gain an outright majority. EUR/SEK has edged higher over recent days from its low around 9.1528 but SEK selling pressure is unlikely to intensify following the election, with EUR/SEK 9.3070 providing tough technical resistance.

No Let Up in USD Pressure

At the end of a momentous week for currency markets it’s worth taking stock of how things stand. Much uncertainty remains about the global growth outlook, especially with regard to the US economy, potential for a double-dip and further Fed quantitative easing. Although there is little chance of QE2 being implemented at next week’s Fed FOMC meeting speculation will likely remain rife until there is clearer direction about the path of the US economy.

In Europe, sovereign debt concerns have eased as reflected in the positive reception to debt auctions this week. Nonetheless, after a strong H1 2010 in terms of eurozone economic growth the outlook over the rest of the year is clouded. Such uncertainty means that markets will also find it difficult to find a clear direction leaving asset markets at the whim of day to day data releases and official comments.

The added element of uncertainty has been provided by Japan following its FX intervention this week. Whilst Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention this will not only keep the JPY on the back foot but will provide a much needed prop for the USD in general. Indeed Japan’s intervention has had the inadvertent effect of slowing but not quite stopping the decline in the USD, at least for the present.

The fact that Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention suggests that markets will be wary of selling the USD aggressively in the short term. The headwinds on the USD are likely to persist for sometime however, regardless of intervention by Japan and/or other Asian central banks across Asia, until the uncertainty over the economy and QE2 clears.

Japan’s intervention has not gone down well with the US or European authorities judging by comments made by various officials. In particular, the FX intervention comes at a rather sensitive time just as the US is piling on pressure on China to allow its currency the CNY to strengthen further. Although US Treasury Secretary Geithner didn’t go as far as proposing trade and legal measures in his appearance before Congress yesterday there is plenty of pressure from US lawmakers for the administration to take a more aggressive stance, especially ahead of mid-term Congressional elections in November. Ironically, the pressure has intensified just as China has allowed a more rapid pace of CNY nominal appreciation over recent days although it is still weaker against its basket according to our calculations.

Another country that has seen its central bank intervening over many months is Switzerland, with the SNB having been aggressively intervening to prevent the CHF climbing too rapidly. However, in contrast to Japan the SNB is gradually stepping back from its intervention policy stating yesterday that it would only intervene if the risk of deflation increased. Even so, Japan may have lent the Swiss authorities a hand, with EUR/CHF climbing over recent days following Japan’s intervention.

The move in EUR/CHF accelerated following yesterday’s SNB policy meeting in which the Bank cut its inflation forecasts through 2013, whilst stating that the current policy stance in “appropriate”. Moreover, forecasts of “marked” slowdown in growth over the rest of the year highlight the now slim chance of policy rates rising anytime soon. Markets will eye technical resistance around 1.3459 as a near term target but eventually the CHF will likely resume its appreciation trend, with a move back below EUR/CHF 1.3000 on the cards.

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