No surprises likely from ECB and BoE

Markets appear to be entering into a more nervous period following several weeks of upside for risk assets. While risk appetite measures remain elevated equity markets appear to be running out of momentum in the short term.

A combination of European political concerns as elections approach in Italy, corruption allegations in Spain, currency frictions, the continued impasse in the US over impending spending cuts or simply a market that has overtaken reality, it appears that a pause in the rally in risk assets is on the cards.

A test of sentiment towards Spain will take the form of a Spanish bond auction today while central bank policy decisions in the Eurozone and UK will garner most attention today although no big surprises are expected as both central banks are set to keep policy on hold.

Anyone expecting the European Central Bank to echo the views on some European politicians by taking a stand against the strength of the EUR will be sorely disappointed. While clearly uncomfortable from a growth perspective the rise in EUR will be rationalised as a reflection of better market sentiment towards Eurozone assets. In fact the ECB could be a cause of EUR strength with its shrinking balance sheet playing a role in supporting EUR especially as it contrasts with the Fed’s balance sheet expansion.

Further ECB balance sheet contraction in the months ahead as LTRO payments are made could put into jeopardy my forecast of a lower EUR/USD (1.25 by end 2013). In the past the ECB has verbally intervened by warning on the strong volatility of the EUR but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon as 3 month EUR/USD implied volatility is still close to multi month lows. In any case the market may already be self correcting, with EUR appearing to lose some steam over recent days. Near term consolidation is likely around the ECB meeting.

The Bank of England in contrast to the ECB may be welcoming the moves in GBP over recent weeks given the stimulus provided to the UK economy from a weaker pound. An unchanged BoE policy decision today will have minimal impact on GBP, with more attention on the testimony of incoming governor Carney, especially given his recent comments about tying monetary policy to economic growth during “exceptional times”. The comments had already dealt a blow to GBP but unless Carney elaborates further I do not expect GBP to be hit much more.

Even so, GBP/USD risks remain to the downside given ongoing concerns about a credit ratings downgrade and a negative technical picture. Taking a short EUR/GBP position may offer some better prospects for those wishing to enter GBP long positions as the upside momentum in the currency pair appears to be flagging although I suggest waiting for more concrete signals of a turnaround before entering into such a position.

Currency frictions

I would like to apologise for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. I have been on a client roadshow presenting our macro and markets outlook for 2013 to clients across Asia. Having returned the mood of the markets is clearly bullish as risk assets rally globally. Recovery hopes are intensifying as tail risk is diminishing while central banks continue to keep their monetary levers fully open.

A heavy slate of US data releases this week will keep markets busy but overall I see little to dent the positive tone to risk assets over coming sessions. The main events this week include the US January jobs report (forecast +160k) and Fed FOMC meeting (no change likely) while consumer and manufacturing confidence, Q4 GDP and December durable goods orders are also on tap.

In the Eurozone attention will focus less on data but more on Eurozone banks’ balance sheets, with further capital inflows likely to be revealed, marking another positive development following last week’s strong payback of LTRO funds. Elsewhere, industrial production in Japan is likely to reveal a healthy gain while an interest rate decision in New Zealand (no change likely) will prove to be a non event.

As fiscal and monetary stimulus measures are largely becoming exhausted or at least delivering diminishing returns the next policy push appears to be coming from the currency front. The issue of ‘currency war’ is once again doing the rounds in the wake of Japan’s more aggressive stance on the JPY leading to growing friction in currency markets.

In contrast the easing of Eurozone peripheral strains have boosted the EUR, in turn resulting in a sharp and politically sensitive move higher in EUR/JPY. Central banks globally are once again resisting unwanted gains in their currencies, a particular problem in emerging markets as yield and risk searching capital flows pick up. Expect the friction over currencies to gather more steam over the coming weeks and months.

In the near term likely positive news in the form of large capital inflows into Eurozone peripheral banks and sovereign bond markets will keep the EUR buoyed. The USD in contrast will be restrained as US politicians engage in battle over the looming budget debate and spending cuts despite the move to extend the debt ceiling until May.

GBP has slid further and was not helped by the bigger than expected drop in Q4 GDP revealed last week which in turn suggests growing prospects of a ‘triple dip’ recession. The lack of room on the fiscal front implies prospects for more aggressive Bank of England monetary policy especially under the helm of a new governor and in turn even greater GBP weakness.

G20 Leaves The US Dollar Under Pressure

The G20 meeting of Finance Ministers and Central bankers failed to establish any agreement on clear targets or guidelines. Perhaps the problem of trying to achieve consensus amongst a variety of sometimes conflicting views always pointed to an outcome of watered down compromise but in the event the G20 summit appears to pass the buck to November’s summit of G20 leaders in Seoul where more concrete targets may be outlined.

Officials pledged to “move towards more market determined exchange rate systems” and to “refrain from competitive devaluation of currencies”. What does this actually mean? The answer is not a great deal in terms of practical implications. The first part of the statement is the usual mantra from such meetings and the addition of the latter part will do little to stop central banks, especially in Asia from continuing to intervene given that no central bank is actually devaluing their currency but rather preventing their currencies from strengthening too rapidly.

The communiqué highlighted the need for advanced economies being “vigilant against excess volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates”, but once again this is the mantra found in the repertoire of central bankers over past years and is unlikely to have the desired effect of reducing the “excessive volatility in capital flows facing some emerging countries”. In other words many emerging countries will continue to have an open door to impose limited restrictions on “hot money” flows.

Although the language on currencies was stronger than in previous summits it arguably changes very little in terms of the behaviour of central banks and governments with respect to currencies. The communiqué is wide open to varying interpretations by countries and is unlikely to prevent the ongoing trend of USD depreciation and emerging market country FX appreciation and interventions from continuing over coming weeks.

The onus has clearly shifted to the November summit of G20 leaders but once again it seems unlikely that substantial agreements will be found. In the interim the November 3 Fed FOMC meeting will be the next major focus and if the Fed embarks on renewed asset purchases as widely expected FX tensions will remain in place for some time yet.

So whilst a “currency war” was always unlikely “skirmishes” will continue. In the meantime the USD is set to remain under pressure although it’s worth noting that speculative positioning has recorded a reduction in net aggregate USD short positions over the last couple of weeks, suggesting that some of the USD selling pressure may have abated. Whether this reflected caution ahead of the G20 meeting (as the data predates the G20 meeting) or indicated the USD having priced in a lot of quantitative easing (QE2) expectations already, is debatable.

The path of least resistance to USD weakness remains via major currencies including AUD, CAD and NZD. Officials in Europe are also showing little resistance to EUR strength despite the premature tightening in financial conditions and negative impact on growth that it entails. Scandinavian currencies such as SEK and NOK have also posted strong gains against the USD and will likely continue to show further outperformance.

The JPY has been the best performing major currency this year followed not far behind by the CHF despite the FX interventions of the authorities in Japan and Switzerland. Although USD/JPY is fast approaching the 80.00 line in the sand level expected to result in fresh FX intervention by the Japanese authorities, the path of the JPY remains upwards. Japan is unlikely to go away from the G20 meeting with any change in policy path as indicated by officials following the weekend deliberations.

Temporary relief for US Dollar

Downbeat US economic news in the form of a widening US trade deficit, increase in jobless claims and bigger than expected increase in top line PPI inflation contrasted with upbeat earnings from Google. Google shares surged over 9% in after hours trading but US data tarnished the risk on mood of markets, leaving commodity prices and equities lower and the USD firmer. Higher US Treasury yields, especially in the longer end following a poor 30 year auction, helped the USD to push higher.

The USD’s trend is undoubtedly lower but profit taking may be the order of the day ahead of a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke on monetary policy later today and the release of the highly anticipated US Treasury Report in which China may be named as a currency manipulator. A speech by the Minneapolis Fed’s Kocherlatoka (non voter) this morning sounded downbeat, even suggesting that “Fed asset purchases may have a muted effect”. Despite such comments the Fed appears likely to embark on QE2 at its 3 November meeting.

Today is also a key data for US data releases with September data on US retail sales, and CPI and October data on Michigan confidence and Empire manufacturing scheduled for release. Retail sales are likely to look reasonable, with headline sales expected to rise 0.5% and ex-autos sales expected up 0.4%. The gauges of both manufacturing and consumer confidence are also likely to show some recovery whilst inflation pressures will remain benign. Given the uncertainty about the magnitude of QE the Fed will undertake in November, the CPI data will have added importance.

The US trade will likely have resulted in an intensification of expectations that China will be labelled as a currency manipulator in the US Treasury report later today. The August trade deficit with China widened $28.04 billion, the largest on record. At the least it will give further ammunition to the US Congress who are spoiling for a fight ahead of mid-term congressional elections, whilst heightening tensions ahead of the November G20 meeting.

Indeed currency frictions continue to increase although “currency war” seems to be an extreme label for it. Nonetheless, Singapore’s move yesterday to widen the SGD band highlighted the pressure that many central banks in the region are coming under to combat local currency strength. Singapore’s move may be a monetary tightening but it is also a tacit recognition of the costs of intervening to weaken or at least limit the strength of currencies in the region. To have maintained the previous band would have required ongoing and aggressive FX intervention which has its own costs in terms of sterilization.

This problem will remain as long as the USD remains weak and this in turn will depend on US QE policy and bond yields. A lot of negativity is priced into the USD and market positioning has become quite extreme suggesting that it will not all be a downhill bet for the currency. Many currencies breached or came close to testing key psychological and technical levels yesterday, with EUR/USD breaching 1.4000, GBP/USD breaking 1.6000, USD/CAD breaking below parity and AUD/USD coming close to testing parity. Some reversal is likely today, but any relief for the USD is likely to prove temporary.

No FX co-operation

Despite all the jawboning ahead of the IMF / World Bank meetings over the weekend the meeting ended with little agreement on how deal to with the prospects of a “currency war”. US officials continued to sling mud at China for not allowing its currency, the CNY, to appreciate quickly enough whilst China blamed the US for destabilizing emerging economies by flooding them with liquidity due to the Fed’s ultra loose monetary policy stance. Chinese trade data on Wednesday my throw more fuel on to the fire given another strong surplus expected, lending support to those in the US Congress who want to label China as a “currency manipulator”.

Although the IMF communiqué mentioned countries working co-operatively” on currencies there were no details on how such cooperation would take place. The scene is now set for plenty of friction and potential volatility ahead of the November G20 meeting in Seoul. Although many central banks are worrying about USD weakness when was the last time US Treasury Secretary Geithner talked about a strong USD? US officials are probably happy to see the USD falling and are unlikely to support any measure to arrest its decline unless the drop in the USD turns into a rout. In contrast, the strengthening EUR over recent weeks equates to around 50bps of monetary tightening, a fact that could put unwanted strain on Europe’s growth trajectory, especially in the periphery.

The outcome of the IMF meeting leaves things much as they left off at the end of last week. In other words there is little to stand in the way of further USD weakness apart from the fact that the market is already extremely short USDs. Indeed the latest CFTC IMM data revealed that aggregate net USD positioning came within a whisker of its all time low, with net positions at -241.2k contracts (USD -30 billion), the lowest USD positioning since November 2007. Interestingly and inconsistent with the sharp rise in the EUR, positioning in this currency remains well below its all time highs, supporting the view that rather than speculative investors it is central banks that are pushing the EUR higher.

The US jobs report at the end of last week proved disappointing, with total September payrolls dropping by 95k despite a 64k increase in private payrolls. The data will act to reinforce expectations that the Fed will begin a program of further asset purchases or quantitative easing (QE2) at its November meeting. Data and events this week will give further clues, especially the Fed FOMC minutes tomorrow and speeches from Fed Chairman Bernanke on Thursday and Friday as well as various other Fed speakers on tap.

Recent speeches by Fed officials have highlighted growing support for QE although some have tried to temper expectations. Questions about the timing and size of any new programme, as well as how it will be communicated remain unanswered. Although November seems likely for the Fed to start QE the Fed’s Bullard suggested that the Fed may wait until December. The minutes will be scrutinized for clues on these topics. The Fed is likely to embark on incremental asset purchases with the overall size being data dependent and the USD set to remain under pressure while this happens.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 569 other followers

%d bloggers like this: