FX volatility declining, AUD still vulnerable

FX options appear to be increasingly comfortable with the current lack of movement in currencies. For example, 3-month EUR/USD implied volatility has dropped to multi-year lows while my measure of G3 implied volatility has been at very low levels over recent months.

This has corresponded with the drop in risk aversion as market fears over US growth and Eurozone debt issues recede. Over the short term there appears to be little to jolt markets out of their stupor and if anything EUR/USD is likely to continue to drift higher according to our short term quantitative models.

Indeed, firmer risk appetite, despite the odd hiccup, plays positively for the EUR while the pull back in US bond yields has restrained the USD. The Ecofin meeting beginning tomorrow will likely give further support to the EUR, if as expected, ministers bolster the Eurozone ‘firewall’.

It has been a one step forwards, two steps back motion for AUD/USD over recent weeks as it continues to edge lower. Although US bond yields have pulled back Australian yields have pulled back relatively more, reducing Australia’s yield advantage and weighing on the AUD in the process.

Over recent weeks speculative AUD positioning has also fallen, reflecting deteriorating sentiment for the currency, but the fact that the market is still long suggests scope for further short term downside.

Aside from yield differentials most of the usual correlations with AUD have broken down suggesting that the AUD is getting a dose of independent weakness. However, China news remains a key focal point for AUD and the decline in the Shanghai composite stock index has become an interesting lead indicator for AUD performance. Over the near term AUD will likely continue to weaken in jagged steps.

Dear readers please note that there will be very limited updates of econometer.org over the next couple of weeks due to my Easter vacation.

Weak USD will not persist, CHF to drop eventually

Risk appetite has deteriorated slightly since the Bernanke fuelled bounce earlier this week but there does not appear to be much of a directional bias for markets either way. Interestingly Treasury yields continue to pull back even while equity markets have softened overnight.

Data has been mixed, with US consumer confidence dipping in March albeit not as much as expected while US house prices also did not drop by as much as anticipated. Data releases on tap today include monetary aggregates in the Eurozone and durable goods orders in the US. The tone will likely continue to be slightly ‘risk off’.

The USD has come under growing pressure since its mid March high, with the EUR in particular taking advantage of its vulnerability. A combination of improving risk appetite and a correction lower in US Treasury yields in the wake of relatively Fed comments have been sufficient to deal the USD a blow.

However, the outlook for the USD is mixed today as on the one hand it will be helped by a reduction in risk appetite but hit on the other by a drop in US Treasury yields overnight. Data today should be a little more constructive for the USD, with a likely bounce back in durable good orders in February.

Overall, I do not expect the weak USD bias to persist especially as it is based on unrealistic expectations that the Fed will still implement more quantitative easing. Indeed, while further Fed easing is possible it may not need to involve an expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet.

EUR/CHF remains pinned to the 1.20 ‘line in the sand’ imposed by the Swiss National Bank while the CHF has strengthened over recent weeks against the USD. Economic data has deteriorated over recent months, with the forward looking Swiss KoF leading indicator pointing to a further weakening.

We will get further news on this front on Friday with the latest KoF release, with a slight a bounce expected. In turn, bad news on the economic front is adding to pressure for CHF weakness. Market positioning in CHF is negative but there is plenty of scope to increase short positioning in the months ahead given that short CHF positions remain well off their all time highs.

Eventually as risk appetite improves and the US yield advantage widens against Switzerland, both EUR/CHF and USD/CHF will move higher.

JPY pullback risks, GBP to slip versus USD

A combination of market friendly comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke, a better than expected outcome for the German IFO business confidence survey in March and hopes of a bolstering of the Eurozone bailout fund, have managed to lift risk assets while pressuring the USD. Markets appear to have shaken off, at least for now, growth worries emanating from weaker manufacturing confidence surveys in China and Europe last week.

Nonetheless, while Bernanke maintained that accommodative monetary policy is still required especially given concerns about the jobs market, he did not hint at more quantitative easing, suggesting that market optimism may be tempered in the days ahead. Data and events today include US and French consumer confidence as well as bill auctions in Spain and Italy. US consumer confidence is likely to slip slightly while the bill auctions are likely to be well received.

While I remain bearish on the JPY in the medium term (beyond 1 month), over the near term I believe there is scope for a pull back. The move in USD/JPY has gone beyond what would be expected by the shift in relative yields. This is corroborated by my short term quantitative model which shows that USD/JPY should be trading around 80.

The speculative market is positioned for JPY weakness but also points to some scope for short covering; both CFTC IMM data and Japanese TFX data (a gauge of local margin trading positioning) reveal significant short JPY positions. If as I expect, USD/JPY does pull back it will offer better levels for investors to initiate medium term JPY bearish trades.

Ultimately the JPY will regain its attraction as a funding currency for carry trades and the bigger the shift in relative yield with the US, the more the potential for capital outflows from Japan into higher yielding assets.

GBP has failed to sustain gains above 1.59 against the USD over recent weeks let alone manage to test the psychologically important 1.60 level. The current bounce above 1.59 is unlikely to last. It will require a renewed downtrend in the USD in general provoked by a sharp improvement in risk appetite and/or a drop in US bond yields for GBP to move much higher. Neither seems likely.

Indeed, GBP will be vulnerable to a general firmer USD over the remainder of the year. While I would not suggest playing a bullish call on GBP versus the USD I think there is much more juice in holding GBP versus EUR, with downside risks to this currency pair likely to open up. Indeed, my quantitative models reveal that GBP is mispriced against both EUR and AUD.

USD pressured by drop in yield

Risk sentiment starts the week in positive mode. Weekend reports that Germany will not stand in the way of allowing the (European Financial Stability Facility) EFSF and its successor the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) bailout funds to be combined to boost the ‘firewall’ against contagion in the Eurozone has helped to boost sentiment.

Market direction may be obscured by month end and quarter end window dressing this week and despite the likely positive start to the week there are still plenty of factors to dent risk appetite over coming days, not least of which is the gyrations in oil prices.

The USD has slipped over recent days in line with a pull back in US Treasury bond yields. Notably there has also been a pull back in speculative USD sentiment as recorded in the CFTC IMM data. The ‘risk on’ tone to market that appears to be developing today will likely result in renewed downside risks to the currency.

US economic data continues to outshine economic releases elsewhere although US housing data last week was notably mixed. It will be the turn of March consumer confidence and February durable goods orders to capture the market’s attention over coming days.

A slight decline in the former and a healthy increase in the latter are expected. However, it seems unlikely that either release will be particularly supportive for yields and in turn the USD, so it will require a further increase in risk aversion to push the USD higher over coming days.

EUR/USD appears to be settling into the middle of a 1.30-1.35 range. Direction has increasingly been led by economic factors rather than debt issues recently but the news on the former has not been particularly good.

The March German IFO today and EU Finance Ministers meeting will be the key events of the week while there will also be interest on Spain’s budget as well as Spanish and Italian debt auctions. The IFO will likely prove to be more positive for the EUR than the manufacturing surveys last week, with an uptrend in the data continuing.

Moreover, hopes that Finance Ministers will bolster the ‘firewall’ to prevent other peripheral countries from repeating Greece’s debacle, will also likely keep the EUR supported. Overall, this implies EUR/USD will likely continue to creep higher over the week, with a test of technical resistance around 1.3356 eyed.

Euro decline limited, AUD under pressure

EUR looks like it’s going nowhere fast, with the currency failing to break above 1.33 versus the USD. Nonetheless any drop will be limited as there will be plenty of support for EUR/USD around the 1.30 level. Such support may be required following the disappointing reading for the Eurozone March flash purchasing managers index (PMI) and renewed growth worries even in Germany.

Moreover, there have been plenty of scare stories about ongoing problems in the Eurozone, centring on Portugal and Spain and even speculation of a third Greek bailout being needed at some point.

However, the reality is that the market has reduced its attention on Eurozone debt issues for the time being. Once the latest bout of risk aversion passes, this ought to allowing the EUR some room to push higher, with my short term models highlighting the scope for EUR/USD to edge back towards 1.35 over coming weeks.

AUD has been pummelled this week, alongside its neighbour NZD. Growth worries in China compounded by a weaker than expected March China PMI has piled on the pressure, especially on AUD where economic conditions are increasingly linked with China. My quantitative models highlight ongoing short term downside risks to both AUD and NZD.

However, declines in these currencies will provide better levels to eventually buy as I remain bullish in the medium term even though my valuation metrics reveal that both currencies remain overvalued. My view is built on the prediction that risk appetite will improve further this year, a boon to high beta currencies such as AUD and NZD. Additionally as yield gains importance and carry trades gain attraction AUD will look particularly attractive.

JPY retracement, CHF pressure

Risk assets rallied overnight, the USD weakened and US Treasury yields rose. There was little new in terms of economic news, with only NAHB March homebuilders confidence of note, which came in slightly weaker than expected. The bigger driver for markets was the news that Apple Inc. will pay around USD 45 billion in dividends and share buybacks over the next 3-years.

Today sees a crop of second tier releases including housing starts and building permits in the US and inflation data in the UK while there will also be attention on a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke. Risk assets will remain supported but I continue to see consolidation for markets in the near term.

USD/JPY has retraced lower as warned last week. My quantitative models suggest scope for even more of a correction lower, with a drop below 83.00 on the cards in the short term. While the upward move in the currency pair was built on a widening in the US yield advantage over Japan, the move looks overdone. Nonetheless, any pullback will offer better levels to initiate long USD/JPY medium term positions.

Clearly the market believes that the JPY will weaken further given the build up in JPY short positions over recent weeks, with shorts at their highest since April 2011. February trade data to be released on Thursday will provide further fuel for JPY bears given the persistence of a trade deficit and weakness in exports.

Following the bounce in EUR/CHF last week the currency pair has dropped back into its recent tight range around the 1.2050-1.2070 area. Strong warnings by the Swiss National Bank at its policy meeting did not lead to any follow through on the CHF. I expect a gradual drift higher in EUR/CHF over coming weeks in line with the incremental change in sentiment for the Eurozone as Greece slips from the radar.

Official pressure for CHF weakness will remain intense given the deterioration in economic data as likely to be revealed in today’s release of Q4 industrial production. Nonetheless, the SNB will be wary of confronting the market in terms of FX intervention to weaken the CHF despite its verbal warnings. Meanwhile USD/CHF remains highly sensitive to gyrations in the USD index given its strong correlation, suggesting some consolidation in the short term as the USD pulls back.

Consolidation

The overall tone to markets remains a positive one. Core bonds (Treasuries, bunds) have taken on a bearish tone in the wake of strengthening economic data and have established the usual bullish equities / bearish bonds relationship. Meanwhile volatility measures both in equity and currency markets have dropped to historically low levels.

The USD has been propelled by higher US bond yields but looks vulnerable as US Treasuries consolidate in the short term. Data this week is fairly light, suggesting that direction will be limited as only housing data in the US and purchasing managers’ indices in Europe will be of interest. Overall, the start to the week will see markets in consolidation mood.

The USD index had made up plenty of ground since hitting its lows around 78.095 at the end of February. Higher US bond yields in the wake of strengthening economic data and receding expectations of more Fed money printing have boosted the USD. Nonetheless, US Treasuries appear to be consolidating their losses (ie yields have failed to push higher recently), limiting the ability of the USD to strengthen further.

Data releases in the US this week will be mainly centred on the housing market and are unlikely to be strong enough to warrant a further strengthening in the currency. Much will also depend on gyrations in risk. My Risk Barometer has moved into ‘risk loving’ territory, which plays negatively for the USD versus many high beta currencies. The USD will struggle to make further gains in the short term.

The agreement to furnish Greece with a second bailout gave the EUR no help whatsoever. Instead, higher US Treasury yields relative to bunds dealt the EUR a strong blow and the currency came dangerously close to dropping below the 1.3000 psychologically important level versus USD. Even a narrowing in peripheral bond spreads against the core has failed to give the EUR a lift. Further EUR losses will be limited over coming days but only because US yields have not pushed higher.

Nonetheless, the technical picture has turned bearish and any relief could prove temporary. A mixed batch of data releases including ‘flash’ purchasing managers’ indices which overall will reveal the composite PMI below the 50 boom/bust level for a second month in a row, will not be particularly helpful for the EUR. EUR/USD is likely to be stuck in a 1.2974 – 1.3291 range over coming sessions.

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