Low volatility unsustainable

There seems to be a real disconnection between the problems / tensions in China, Ukraine, Turkey, Thailand etc and market sentiment.

Even in the US the market has happily swallowed Yellen’s speech that data weakness is all related to bad weather (US equities rose to record highs overnight while the VIX index has edged lower). Well once the weather improves the data had better improve too otherwise that theory will be shot to pieces and markets will be hit.

In particular there really does appear to be a surprisingly degree of complacency towards events in Ukraine (see earlier comments). On that note even if the Ukraine avoids default via money from US/Europe/IMF tensions with Russia remain a major issue.

In terms of FX reaction JPY and CHF could face more upward pressure while the EUR is looking increasingly exposed. High beta FX EM FX will look increasingly vulnerable against this background.

What is surprising is that both major FX and EM FX implied volatility indices (1m, 3m) are tracking below their historical vol indices. The low level of volatility in both FX and equity markets looks unsustainable.

US dollar pull back to prove short lived

Having spent the tail end of last week in Singapore and Phnom Penh presenting the Global outlook for 2014 to clients as part of our Asian roadshow it struck me that there is a strong consensus view about a number of market movements this year. In particular, most expect the USD to strengthen over 2014. Indeed just as it looked as though the USD was going to surge into the new year, along comes the US jobs report to spoil the party. Clearly, it’s not going to be a one way bet in 2014.

The surprisingly weak US December payrolls data in which only 74k jobs were added compared to consensus expectations of close to 200k helped to support expectations that Fed tapering would take place only gradually, lending a helping hand to risk assets at the turn of this week.

I don’t believe the jobs data materially changes the picture for the Fed. Adverse weather may have played a role in the weakness in jobs while complicating matters was the drop in the unemployment rate to 6.7% largely due to around 350,000 people leaving the labour force. The data resulted in a drop in US bond yields and a weaker USD although equity market reaction was more mixed. Meanwhile gold and other commodity prices rose.

While risk assets may find some support in the wake of the jobs report this week much of the US data slate will if anything highlight that economic growth is strengthening, suggesting a reversal of some of the price action in US Treasuries, USD and gold. Data releases include a likely healthy increase in core US retail sales in December together with gains in manufacturing confidence surveys (Empire and Philly Fed) and industrial output as well as a further increase in consumer confidence (Michigan sentiment survey).

Additionally several Fed speakers are on tap over coming days, which may give more colour on Fed thinking in the wake of the jobs report. However, it is doubtful that they will indicate that the Fed will not taper as expected in January.

Clearly markets were caught overly long USDs last week as reflected in CFTC IMM speculative positioning data as of 7th January which showed that net USD long positions had reached their highest since September 2013. The pull back in the USD is set to be short lived, however, especially if US data over coming days reveals further improvement as expected.

USD/JPY in particular bore the brunt of the pull back in US yields, as long positions were unwound. A Japanese holiday today may limit activity but much will depend on the propensity for US yields to bounce back, with 10 year US Treasury yields currently around 2.85% compared to around 2.97% on Friday.

Asian currencies have been the most sensitive to US Treasury yields gyrations over the past three months. In order of sensitivity to US 10 year Treasury yields the highest is the JPY, followed by MYR, THB, PHP and SGD. These currencies would be expected to benefit the most in the wake of the drop in yields at the end of last week although as noted any pull back in US yields is likely to prove temporary. While the THB may suffer from political concerns in the near term the other currencies are likely to see some short term gains.

Asian currencies at multi-year highs

Asian currencies are stronger in the wake of a sharp improvement in risk appetite following the approval of Greece’s austerity measures. The rally in Asian FX is revealed in the ADXY (an index of Asian currencies) index which is approaching a test of its 2nd May high around 119.26 around its highest level since August 1997. Technical indicators have turned more bullish, with the ADXY breaking above its key moving average levels (20, 50 & 100 day) and the 14-day relative strength index also turning higher.

The Asian FX rally has been led by the KRW, the Asian currency that has had the highest correlation with risk over the past few weeks. Given that risk aversion has dropped sharply since mid June it is no surprise that this currency has strengthened the most. USD/KRW is trading around its lowest level since August 2008. Strong equity capital outflows had kept the KRW on the back foot over much of June but there has been a bounce back in flows recently. However, USD/KRW is likely to find it tough to break below 1060 over the short-term, especially given likely resistance from the local authorities.

The THB, the worst performing Asian currency in June, has rapidly reversed some of its losses. The THB looks set to consolidate its gains following a decisive election result which saw the opposition Puea Thai Party gain control of parliament. The biggest relief for markets was the fact that the outcome was relatively clear cut, suggesting a potentially a smooth handover of power. Nonetheless, the currency has already jumped and after having dropped to around 30.40 from a high of around 31.01 USD/THB is likely to trade off gyrations in risk appetite.

The fact that the USD has lost some ground in the wake of firmer risk appetite and better news in Greece has also allowed Asian currencies to strengthen although it’s worth noting that amongst Asian currencies only the MYR has maintained a significant correlation with the USD index over the past 3-months. In other words, although USD weakness has helped to facilitate Asian currency strength, the recent strengthening in Asian FX is more likely to have been due to a rebound in capital inflows to the region.

Further Asian FX gains are likely over the near term especially as China continues to fix the CNY higher versus USD but given the recent rapid gains in some currencies, there is a risk of growing official resistance and intervention to slow or stem Asian FX gains. Moreover, the end of QE2 in the US suggests that the downside risks for the USD in general are not likely to be as prevalent, with a potential recovery in the USD over H2 likely to stand in the way of strong Asian FX gains over coming months.

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