Equity Flow Reversal Supports Asian FX

Asian currencies have rebounded smartly from their post Japan earthquake lows on March 16. The ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asia Currency index) is now at its highest level since September 1997 reflecting a sharp rebound in capital inflows to the region. The performance of Asian currencies continues to correspond closely with the movement in capital flows.

Although almost all Asian equity markets have registered outflows so far this year (total equity outflows -$6.2bn), the trend is reversing. Over the past month there has been a major slowing in capital outflows for most countries in Asia whilst India, Thailand and the Philippines have actually registered sizeable inflows. South Korea is notable in that there has been a sharp increase in equity capital inflows over the past week.

Although there has been much focus on a rotation of capital flows out of Asia and into developed economies this year, it is worth noting that the pattern of equity flows in Q1 2011 has not been too different from that witnessed in the past couple of years. In both 2009 and 2010 equity outflows were recorded over the two (2010) or three (2009) months of the year before a reversal took place. This pattern looks like it is repeating itself.

Clearly the environment for Asian equity markets is not as supportive as it was last year given the belated tightening in monetary policies being undertaken by many central banks and prospects of an end to QE2 in the US. Whilst this will result in some reduction in capital flows to the region compared to last year, the overall outlook is positive. Easing risk aversion (our risk aversion barometer has already reversed all of its post Japan earthquake spike and is trending lower), positive growth outlook and maintenance of low US rates point to more inflows.

One currency in particular that will benefit is KRW, with a further drop in USD/KRW likely over coming weeks. KRW has already strengthened by around by around 2.7% since its post Japan earthquake low making it the best performing currency since then. Further gains are likely; a test of USD/KRW 1100 is on the cards in the short-term, with the year end target standing at 1050.

Why buy KRW? 1) Korea has registered the biggest improvement in equity capital flows recently, 2) KRW has been the most sensitive Asian currency to risk over the past month and therefore benefits the most as risk appetite improves, 3) Estimated Price/Earnings ratio for Korean equities looks cheap compared to its historical z-score according to our estimates. As a result our quantitative model on USD/KRW based on commodity prices, risk aversion and equity performance highlights the potential for significantly more KRW strength.

Euro’s Teflon Coating Wearing Thin

EUR has suffered a setback in the wake some disappointment from the European Union summit at the end of last week and the major defeat of German Chancellor Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Union party in yesterday’s election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The EUR had been fairly resistant to negative news over recent weeks but its Teflon like coating may be starting to wear thin.

The setbacks noted above + others (see previous post) follow credit rating downgrades for Portugal by both S&P and Fitch ratings and growing speculation that the country is an imminent candidate for an EU bailout following the failure of the Portuguese government to pass its austerity measures last week and subsequent resignation of Portugal’s Prime Minister Socrates.

For its part Portugal has stated that it does not need a bailout but looming bond redemptions of around EUR 9 billion on April 15 and June 15 against the background of record high funding costs mean that the pressure for a rescue is intense. Complicating matters is the fact that fresh elections cannot be held earlier than 55 days after being announced, meaning that policy will effectively be in limbo until then. A June vote now appears likely.

After what was perceived to be a positive result of the informal EU leaders summit a couple of weeks ago, the outcome of the final summit last week failed to deliver much anticipated further details whilst more negatively the EU bailout fund’s paid-in capital was scaled back to EUR 16 billion (versus EUR 40 billion agreed on March 21) due to concerns expressed by Germany.

Ireland is also in focus ahead of European bank stress tests results on March 31. Ireland is pushing for increased sharing of bank losses with senior bondholders as part of a “final solution” for financial sector. Meanwhile the new government remains unwilling to increase the country’s relatively low corporation tax in exchange for a renegotiation of terms for the country’s bailout. This point of friction also threatens to undermine the EUR.

The bottom line is that the bad news is building up and the ability of the EUR to shake it off is lessening. Considering the fact that the market long EUR, with positioning well above the three-month average the EUR is vulnerable to position adjustment. After slipping over recent days EUR/USD looks supported above 1.3980 but its upside is looking increasingly restricted against the background of various pieces of bad news.

Euro resilient but for how long?

The resilience of the EUR to bad news has been impressive but is unlikely to persist. The recent negatives include 1) the rejection of the Portuguese government’s austerity plan and the increased likelihood of a bailout, 2) a likely delay in the decision on increasing the size and scope of the EFSF EU bailout fund, 3) a drop in Eurozone purchasing managers indices in March, 4) downgrades to Portugal’ sovereign credit ratings by Fitch last night and S&P and 5) Moodys downgrades of 30 Spanish banks. Despite all of this, and after hitting a low of around EUR/USD 1.4054, EUR has bounced back close to the 1.4200 level.

Further direction will come from the outcome of the EU leaders’ summit today and the March German IFO business confidence survey. For the former there is unlikely to be a decisive result, with the optimism following the informal March 11 leaders’ summit likely to give way to delay due to wrangling over details. For the latter, a slight moderation in the IFO is expected following February’s upside surprise. However, there is a bigger risk of a downside surprise following the softer than forecast March German manufacturing PMI released. Against this background, EUR/USD is likely to struggle to break resistance around 1.249.

In general FX markets look somewhat more stable and even the pressure on the USD appears to have abated slightly despite a much weaker than expected outcome for US February durable goods orders yesterday, which revealed a drop in both headline and ex-transportation orders. My composite FX volatility measure has dropped sharply over recent days, led by short term implied JPY volatility which has dropped close to pre-crisis levels. Lower volatility has also likely reduced the prospects of further FX intervention although USD/JPY 80 will continue to be well defended.

Lower volatility as also reflected in the sharp drop in the VIX index has corresponded with a general easing in risk aversion as both Middle East and Japan tensions have eased slightly. US data today are unlikely to offer much direction, with a slight upward revision to US Q4 GDP and an unchanged outcome for the final reading of Michigan consumer confidence expected.

Risk on, US dollar pressure

FX markets have plenty of different factors to digest these days and after a harrowing couple of weeks markets began this week on a firmer footing. The overall tone into this week is to load up on risk assets. News that the nuclear situation in Japan may closer to stabilising has helped, whilst markets easily shook off another hike in China’s reserve ratio and ongoing conflict in Libya as Allied forces step up their campaign in the face of continuing resistance from Gaddafi’s forces.

Improved risk appetite has helped to keep the JPY on the defensive along with the continued threat of FX intervention, with further official JPY selling likely in the days ahead. Interestingly the intervention last Friday was estimated at only JPY 530 billion ($6.2 billion), much lower than previously thought. USD/JPY 80 remains a major line in the sand and any sign of another breach of this level will likely be met with official JPY selling. I suspect that the Japanese authorities will not be content until USD/JPY is far higher. In this respect its worth noting an official report released earlier in March highlighting that Japanese companies are not profitable at a USD/JPY rate below 86.

The EUR looks overbought around the 1.42 level but seems to be a beneficiary of Japanese FX intervention (perhaps a recycling of USDs into EUR) as well as comments by European Central Bank (ECB) Council members reiterating their intention to hike the refi policy rate, likely at the April ECB meeting. In a similar vein to the recycling of intervention USDs into EUR, Middle East entities may also be recycling petrodollars into EUR whilst news that Russia has permitted one of its oil related funds to buy Spanish debt has given a lift to sentiment for the EUR. Over the near term EUR/USD may struggle to make much headway above 1.42, with further direction coming from the EU leaders meeting on 24/25 March.

GBP is also doing well, having jumped close to the 1.6400 level versus USD, with UK February CPI giving the currency a further lift. The outcome at 4.4% YoY, which was not as bad as rumoured but in any case worse than consensus will give the hawks in the Bank of England MPC further ammunition to push for a policy rate hike. The fact that core inflation also increased suggests that the jump in headline inflation cannot merely be brushed under the table. A BoE rate hike is increasingly looking like a done deal. Renewed inflation worries in the UK and the hawkish rhetoric from ECB officials is sufficient to keep the USD under pressure.

G7 Intervention Hits Japanese Yen

One could imagine that it was not difficult for Japan to garner G7 support for joint intervention in currency markets given the terrible disaster that has hit the country. Given expectations of huge repatriation flows into Japan and a possible surge in the JPY Japanese and G7 officials want to ensure currency stability and lower volatility. Moreover, as noted in the G7 statement today officials wanted to show their solidarity with Japan, with intervention just one means of showing such support.

Although Japanese Finance Minister Noda stated that officials are not targeting specific levels, the psychologically important level of 80.00 will likely stick out as a key level to defend. Note that the last intervention took place on 15 September 2010 around 83.00 and USD/JPY was trading below this level even before the earthquake struck. The amount of intervention then was around JPY 2.1 trillion and at least this amount was utilised today. The last joint G7 intervention took place in September 2000.

Unlike the one off FX intervention in September 2010, further intervention is likely over coming days and weeks by Japan and the Federal Reserve, Bank of France, Bundesbank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and other G7 nations. The timing of the move today clearly was aimed at avoiding a further dramatic drop in USD/JPY, with Thursday’s illiquid and stop loss driven drop to around 76.25 adding to the urgency for intervention. USD/JPY will find some resistance around the March high of 83.30, with a break above this level likely to help maintain the upside momentum.

The JPY has become increasingly overvalued over recent years as reflected in a variety of valuation measures. Prior to today’s intervention the JPY was over 40% overvalued against the USD according to the Purchasing Power Parity measure, a much bigger overvaluation than any other Asian and many major currencies. The trade weighted JPY exchange rate has appreciated by around 56% since June 2007. In other words there was plenty of justification for intervention even before the recent post earthquake surge in JPY

Although Japanese exporters had become comfortable with USD/JPY just above the 80 level over recent months, whilst many have significant overseas operations, the reality is that a sustained drop in USD/JPY inflicts significant pain on an economy and many Japanese exporters at a time when export momentum is slowing. Japan’s Cabinet office’s annual survey in March revealed that Japanese companies would remain profitable if USD/JPY is above 86.30. Even at current levels it implies many Japanese companies profits are suffering.

Upward pressure on the JPY will remain in place, suggesting a battle in prospect for the authorities to weaken the currency going forward. Round 1 has gone to the Japanese Ministry of Finance and G7, but there is still a long way to go, with prospects of huge repatriation flows likely to make the task of weakening the JPY a difficult one. The fact that there is joint intervention will ensure some success, however and expect more follow up by other G7 countries today to push the JPY even weaker over the short-term.

Japanese yen spikes higher

Events in Japan continue to dominate market action in this respect the situation is highly fluid. Markets will continue to gyrate on various pieces of news concerning the nuclear situation in Japan. As a result, risk aversion remains highly elevated and safe haven assets including US Treasuries, German bunds and the CHF are the main beneficiaries. In contrast, risk assets including global equity markets and risk currencies have come under growing pressure.

Prior to Japan’s earthquake risk aversion was already elevated amidst renewed eurozone peripheral bond tensions but the aftermath of the earthquake has seen our risk barometer rise to its highest level since the end of August last year. Any decline in risk aversion will depend on the nuclear situation coming under some form of control but until then the general “risk off” market tone will continue. Similarly currency and equity volatility will also remain relatively high.

Risk had been losing its influence on currencies over recent months but the spike in risk aversion over recent weeks has seen short-term correlations increase. The most highly impacted (highest correlations over the past month) currencies from higher risk aversion USD/JPY, USD/CHF, NZD/USD, NOK/SEK, EUR/CHF, EUR/HUF, EUR/PLN, USD/KRW. Over a three-month period all of the correlations are much lower and insignificant for the most part. JPY and CHF will likely remain the key beneficiaries in the current environment.

USD/JPY hit a low of 76.25 amidst volatile trading conditions but Japanese authorities noted that rumours of Japanese life and non life insurance companies repatriating funds back to Japan are “groundless”. USD/JPY bounced from its lows but there appears to be no sign of intervention although there may have been Bank of Japan rate checking, which helped to provoke some fears about imminent intervention. There is a high risk of FX intervention as long as USD/JPY remains below the 80.00 level.

EUR boosted, USD under pressure

Market attention remains fully focussed on events in Japan especially related to the country’s nuclear facilities. Risk aversion has spiked higher as a result, with ongoing Middle East tensions adding to the risk off tone. CHF is a key beneficiary of safe haven demand but the picture for JPY is obscured by repatriation expectations on one hand and FX intervention risks/Bank of Japan liquidity injections on the other, keeping USD/JPY clsoe to the 82.00 level. In contrast the AUD is vulnerable to a drop below parity with the USD on Japan worries, especially as Australia is a key destination for Japanese investment and therefore potential for reversal of such flows if Japanese institutions repatriate funds.

The EUR recovered over recent days as worries about the eurozone periphery ease and peripheral bonds spreads narrow. It is only a matter of time before overly long market positioning catches up with the EUR especially as the prospects of further interest rate support to the currency looked limited; markets have already priced in 75bps of policy rate hikes in the eurozone this year, which looks appropriate. It is difficult to see markets pricing in any more tightening than this over coming weeks. Despite its bounce back EUR/USD will struggle to break resistance around 1.4036.

Markets will digest the fallout from the informal EU leaders meeting last Friday which prepared the groundwork for the official meeting on 24/25 March. The initial reaction of the EUR appears to be positive but there is a significant risk of disappointment if the outcome of the meeting on 24/25 March does not live up to expectations. Indeed although Friday’s meeting resulted in an agreement in principle of a new “pact for the Euro” much will depend on the eventual details later this month.

Leaders also agreed on lowering interest rates to Greece by 100bps, and in principle enlarging the scope of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund to EUR 440 billion. The main positive surprise was opening the door for the fund to purchase eurozone debt. Data releases will offer little support to the EUR this week, with limited gains in the March German ZEW investor confidence survey today likely to leave markets unperturbed.

The USD’s gains last week proved short-lived and the currency will be tested by another relatively dovish Fed FOMC statement today and a benign reading for core CPI inflation in February. The Fed FOMC meeting is unlikely to deliver any changes to the Fed’s stance and whilst there has recently been some speculation that the Fed will soon remove its “extended period” comment, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The statement will remind markets that the Fed is in no rush to alter its policy settings, an outcome that may limit the ability of the USD to strengthen this week even if data releases continue to remain on the positive side, including manufacturing survey and industrial production over coming days.

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