CHF under pressure

In sharp contrast to AUD but for the same rationale (improving risk appetite and low volatility) the CHF has succumbed to pressure. Comments this week by Swiss National Bank officials highlighting their resolve to enforce the CHF cap, their belief that the currency is still overvalued, and are prepared to take further steps, highlight that the Swiss authorities wish for a much deeper correction lower in the currency. This is unsurprising as the CHF real effective exchange rate has been on a strengthening path over recent months, much to the likely chagrin of the SNB.

The fact that Swiss CPI inflation dropped back into negative territory on a YoY basis in February reinforces the need to further weaken the currency. Steps such as negative deposit rates and/or FX intervention cannot be ruled out. In the meantime, USD/CHF looks set to test resistance around 0.8930 (26 Feb high).

EUR and GBP losing ground

Safe haven currencies including JPY and CHF will be the main FX beneficiaries of the current bout of risk aversion although the USD has also edged higher in part due to some slippage in the EUR and GBP. I had noted at the beggining of this week that EUR/USD will remain a buy on dips on any decline to 1.3775. However, after hitting a high around EUR/USD 1.3916 following the European Central Bank’s inaction at its policy meeting last week the currency pair distinctly looks like it has topped out this week. Technical and positioning indicators are also looking less positive for the currency, with the RSI (Relative Strength Index) at a stretched level and speculative positioning above its three month average.

Comments by ECB Vice President Constancio that the markets had not fully taken on the message from the ECB last week that policy will remain accommodative also helped to dampen sentiment for the EUR. Further slippage to technical support around 1.3778 looks likely in the near term.

GBP has lost ground overnight too. Softer data including yesterday’s January industrial production data as well as comments from the Bank of England have weighed on the currency. As noted last week GBP/USD was looking vulnerable above 1.6700 and will face some further short term pressure, with a test of support around 1.6538 looming.

CHF pressures

USD/CHF and EUR/CHF enjoyed a bounce as risk aversion eased but continued uncertainty over the situation in the Ukraine suggests that any upward momentum will be limited. The fact that the largest economic impact from any worsening in tensions with Russia will be felt in the Eurozone highlights that life may become difficult once again for the Swiss National Bank as renewed safe haven inflows move into the country. Indeed the EUR/CHF floor at 1.20 may be tested over coming weeks. Data tomorrow will likely give further reason for the SNB to oppose CHF strength, with the annual rate of CPI inflation set to remain very low.

US dollar restrained further

The USD will continue to be restrained by poor weather conditions and lower US Treasury yields (around 2.6%), especially against the JPY which has also been supported by higher risk aversion and consequent safe haven demand. The USD index is at threat from dropping to its October 2013 lows around 78.998 (currently 79.828)

A similar story applies to the CHF, with USD/CHF hitting its lowest level since late 2011 around 0.8783. This pattern will not change in the short term, especially given the potential escalation in tensions in the Ukraine, keeping the CHF under upward pressure as safe haven inflows increase. EUR/CHF has dropped sharply as a result, with the resolve of the Swiss National Bank to support its line in the sand at 1.20 set to be tested shortly.

Risk currencies in contrast will likely come under growing short term pressure including AUD, NZD and many emerging market currencies. AUD/USD will likely trade with a heavy tone even though the RBA is unlikely to cut policy rates at its meeting tomorrow.

EUR benefitted from the upside surprise for Eurozone inflation but has run into resistance around 1.3800 versus USD. Speculative EUR positioning has continued to rise but the fact that CFTC IMM positioning has risen to above its 3 month average suggests that further EUR gains will be more limited.

Indeed although the USD continues to be restrained by weaker data and lower US yields, the potential for a dovish surprise from the ECB will limit the ability of the EUR to capitalise on USD weakness this week. Strong technical resistance for EUR/USD will be found around 1.3894 (2013 high).

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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.

Lower US yields undermine the US dollar

A drop in US yields has undermined the USD over recent days against major currencies although emerging market currencies remain under varying degrees of pressure. US 10 year Treasury yields have fallen by around a quarter of a percent since the end of last year, acting as a real drag on the USD.

A rise in risk aversion over recent days (the VIX fear gauge has risen by over 13% since its low on 10 January) appears to have resulted in increased demand for Treasuries and weaker equities, with markets ignoring generally firmer than anticipated US economic data this week including weekly jobless claims and existing home sales.

Emerging market currencies have come under strong pressure while the usual safe havens have strengthened most against the USD in particular CHF and JPY. The EUR has also made up some ground. Fortunately for the USD expectations of Fed tapering continue to fuel some buying of the currency, constraining any downside. Nonetheless, until US Treasury yields resume their upward movement the USD’s upside momentum will be limited.

Fed keeps the party going

The party goes on! The Fed decided to play on the side of caution by not acquiescing to market expectations. The FOMC maintained its current USD 85 billion of asset purchases wanting to see more evidence of economic recovery before pulling the trigger. Market expectations centred on a USD 10-15 billion paring back of asset purchases. Clearly worried about a rise in market interest rates Fed Chairman Bernanke strengthened the Fed’s forward guidance by highlighting that the first rate increase may not come until the unemployment rate is “considerably below” 6.5%. A downgrade in the Fed’s economic forecasts will also have helped to justify the inaction by the FOMC.

Clearly risk assets loved what they saw, with equities and commodities rallying and US Treasury yields dropping. Gold prices in particular jumped on the news while the VIX ‘fear gauge’ dropped. The USD was a major casualty losing ground to most currencies, with notably EUR/USD spiking above 1.35 and GBP/USD to above 1.60. High beta emerging market currencies were big winners, given the positive impact of lower US yields and prospects of ongoing capital inflows. While the Fed has merely delayed tapering this will not stop markets from following through on the positive dynamic today. The positive tone will be reinforced across Asian and European markets.

The sharp drop in US Treasury yields hit the USD hard and it is likely to remain under pressure over the short term against a variety of currencies. Although the drop in US yields is likely to prove temporary it is difficult to go against the move in the near term. In order to identify which currencies will benefit the most versus USD I have looked at their sensitivity to US 10 year Treasury yields. The biggest beneficiaries will be Asian currencies given that they register the strongest correlations. The IDR, THB, MYR and INR are at the top of the list in this respect. In any case Asia was already experiencing a resumption of capital inflow as tapering expectations were being priced in and the Fed inaction will reinforce this trend.

GBP bounced following the unanimous vote for no policy shift revealed in the Sep 3-4 Bank of England MPC meeting minutes. Its gains were reinforced by Fed inaction overnight, with GBP/USD breaking through key levels above 1.60. Although the MPC’s 9-0 vote for no change was in line with expectations there was a minority looking for one of two MPC members to have voted for increased asset purchases. Citing upside risks to the growth outlook the BoE appears more confident about the UK’s economy. However, this all but makes a mockery of “forward guidance” and attempts to cap market interest rates. A further test for GBP will come from today’s August retail sales release. There are downside risks to consensus but even this may prove to a temporary stumbling block to a resurgent GBP.

The Swiss National Bank is widely expected to keep policy unchanged today and will make no changes to the CHF ceiling. The desire to keep the ceiling in place remains strong even though the economy is showing signs of recovery, deflationary pressures are receding and capital inflows from the Eurozone have diminished and in fact showing signs of reversing, albeit slowly. Reflecting this SNB reserves growth has slowed while Swiss banks’ foreign liabilities have decreased. The fact that the currency remains overvalued however, means that there is only an extremely slim chance that the ceiling will be removed over coming months. Although the SNB will likely revise upwards its growth forecasts, expect a cautious tone to emerge from the meeting. Accordingly EUR/CHF is set to remains capped around 1.2400 over the near term.

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