Risk appetite firms

Despite the decision by Crimea’s parliament to formally request accession to Russia markets risk assets performed well overnight, with US and European equity markets registering solid gains. Consequently US yields rose overnight while the USD made gains against safe haven currencies.

Market relief probably reflected the fact that the referendum itself passed without violence while the reaction by the West in terms of sanctions was not seen to have a particularly detrimental impact on sentiment.

China’s decision to widen its currency band also passed with little fanfare given that such a move was largely anticipated. There will be some positive pass through into the Asian session from the gains in asset markets overnight although a degree of caution continues to be warranted given the still precarious situation in the Ukraine and ongoing tensions between Russia and the West.

What now for the CNY?

News that China doubled its currency band (to 2% from 1% in relation to its daily mid point) will have reverberations across markets but the reality is that China has been building up to this for several weeks and now that it has happened there may be little incentive to push for more currency weakness.

The net result will probably be less volatility after an initial knee jerk reaction and some relief in markets that the China has actually gone ahead with the move after so much speculation. The reaction of the CNY is set to follow the same script as April 2012, with volatility set to ease once the initial reaction fades.

The weakness in the CNY had been engineered to incite more two way risk to a currency that for many months had been on a one way path of appreciation. China had been forcing the CNY weaker over recent weeks in order to deter speculators who had taken significant long positions in the currency playing for further currency strength.

CNY depreciation versus the USD (around 1.5%) since mid February may also have been a reflection of weaker economic data, with China releasing a series of data releases that had missed consensus forecasts, especially recent trade data.

Already both implied and realized USD/CNY volatility has been trading well in excess of past moves (as reflected in statistical significant readings in our Z-score analysis). Additionally risk reversal skews (3 month, 25 delta) have been flirting with its 2 standard deviation band indicative of the view that the options market holds an extreme view of CNY downside risks.

The main imponderable is what China does now. The band widening is clearly a further step along the road of freeing up the currency on the road to capital account convertibility. However, the reality is that the Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) still sets the daily fixing and the movement in the CNY will still largely depend on where this fixing is set.

Ultimately a move towards a more market based currency will need to allow the market to determine the level and movements in USD/CNY. This may still be a long way off. In the meantime it seems unlikely that the authorities will intervene as aggressively to weaken the CNY as they have done in recent weeks, with a breach of USD/CNY 6.15 likely prove short lived.

China’s still healthy external position and likely resumption of capital inflows will mean that appreciation pressure on the CNY will return and a move back to around 6.00 by end 2014 remains on the cards.

Asian currencies weaken

Asian currencies are facing pressure today in the wake of a generally firmer USD tone although the fact that US Treasury yields continue to edge lower will provide some relief. There has been some good news on the flow front, with the region registering a return of equity portfolio flows so far this month to the tune of USD 1.56 bn, with all countries except Vietnam registering equity inflows. Notably however, India has registered strong outflows of equity capital this week, which could cap gains in the INR.

Weakness in the CNY and CNH has been sustained with the USD grinding higher against both. Recently weaker economic news and expectations of some form of policy measures on the FX front (perhaps band widening) soon after the end of the National People’s Congress will keep the CNY and CNH under pressure.

March’s biggest outperformer the IDR has been an underperformer overnight although its drop has been small compared to the magnitude of recent gains. Nonetheless, USD/IDR may have found a tough level to crack around 11400.

The INR is set to trade with a marginally weaker tone but further direction will come from today’s releases of January industrial production and February CPI inflation data. A move back to 61.50 for USD/INR is likely unless the data comes in strong.

Chinese yuan drops further

China lowered the CNY’s fixing by 0.18% to 6.1312 per USD today, the biggest cut in the fixing since July 2012 to the weakest level since December 3. The move comes quickly in the wake of the poor trade data over the weekend and in particular the sharp 18.1% drop in exports compared to a year earlier.

Although lunar new year timing may have impacted the data, the drop in exports is still significant and may explain why China has been forcing a weaker currency over recent weeks.

Additionally February inflation data in China was soft, with price pressures recording a broad based decline, with CPI inflation falling to a 13 month low of 2% YoY. The soft inflation data adds further reason for the authorities in China to push for a weaker currency.

USD/CNY and USD/CNH both moving higher in reaction to the data and weaker fixing, with the Chinese currency likely to remain under pressure in the short term both onshore and offshore.

CNY / CNH pressure continues

CNY/CNH the downward pressure is unlikely to abate in the near term. The desire to 1) implement two way risk, 2) higher volatility and 3) curb strong capital inflows 4) prepare for band widening, will not end quickly. A resumption of a strengthening trend in CNY / CNH will undo these aims quickly as inflows resume. Hence, if China really wants to instigate significant volatility in the currency the weakening trend is set to continue for a while to come.

At what level does the weakness in the CNY stop? Well my quantitative model already suggests that USD/CNY has already overshot its short term fair value (6.0904) but the bottom line is that this overshoot may persist for several weeks. Nonetheless, CNY has reversed all of its strength versus USD from early October and further weakness may be less rapid.

Further out, the CNY is likely to resume a stronger tone but this may be some weeks away. China continues to benefit from large foreign exchange reserves and a healthy external balance and this will eventually result in upward pressure on the currency. A move back to around 6.00 versus USD by year end remains likely but China’s authorities will want to ensure that the market does not believe that the path there will be a one way street.

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