USD firm but running into resistance

Happy New Year!

The consensus view for 2013 favours equities over bonds helped by expectations of a sustained improvement in risk appetite as tail risk diminishes further. Additionally relative valuations support the consensus. So far equities are on track although it may be a mistake to make a strong judgement based on the first week’s trading.

The US December jobs report provided more evidence that the US economy will trundle along this year at a modest pace of growth. Meanwhile, the US fiscal cliff agreement may have played into a tone of firmer risk appetite but the fact that in less than two months there may be even greater tensions on the debt ceiling and spending cuts suggest that a one way bet of improving risk appetite can by no means be guaranteed.

The USD has begun the year in firm shape appearing to break free from the constraint of improving risk appetite at the turn of the year. In part its strength especially against the JPY can be attributed to higher US bond yields which in turn was pushed higher by less dovish than expected Fed December 11-12 FOMC minutes last week. Given that yields are running into technical resistance the USD may find less support from this source over coming days.

A light data week will give little directional impetus to the USD, with highlights including trade data, consumer credit and small business confidence. Instead the USD will take its cue from various Fed speakers who will likely provide more elaboration on their views on an eventual exit from QE. The USD is likely to remain firm in the short term although we would be wary of extrapolating trends based on early year moves.

In contrast to the limited US data schedule there are plenty of data releases and events in Europe to digest this week including the European Central Bank Council meeting. The ECB is unlikely to ease policy at this meeting, with those in the Council against a cut unlikely to have shifted their stance although a rate cut, possibly in March remains on the cards. Data releases will continue to show weakness although importantly sentiment surveys will stabilise rather than drop further.

Sovereign debt issuance may take more importance for the EUR this week, with Austria, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Italy and Spain all scheduled to issue debt. Given the better risk environment a generally favourable reception to the debt issues will give the EUR some solace, likely preventing the currency from sliding further. Strong EUR/USD technical support is set to come just below 1.3000 at 1.2996.

Euro falls, yen rises as risk aversion picks up

The USD index is quickly slipping back to its mid September lows, although downside momentum has been restrained by an overnight jump in risk aversion. The USD had been undermined by a continued improvement in risk appetite as markets expect (hope) that a deal to avert the fiscal cliff can be averted although recent developments have not been encouraging on this front. Additionally, given the relative strong performance of US equities this year there may be an element of profits repatriation out of the US weighing on the USD. A likely upward revision to US Q3 GDP, rise in the Philly Fed survey manufacturing, and existing home sales, will if anything imply firmer risk appetite and consequent USD weakness.

EUR/USD is trading close to multi month highs but dropped from a high of 1.3309 overnight despite a firmer than expected reading for the December German IFO survey on renewed caution over a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. News flow has provided some impetus to the EUR over recent weeks following recent agreements by European leaders on issues such as banking supervision and a positive Greek debt buyback. Such progress has set the background for a firm end to the year for the currency. Nonetheless, as reflected in its drop overnight any increase in risk aversion will limit the ability of the EUR to move higher. Additionally the EUR will be restrained by caution expressed by the Greek finance minister in the FT over the country’s future highlighting that Greece is not out of the woods yet.

The JPY’s slide has continued unabated ahead of today’s BoJ policy decision. Markets have already priced in further easing in the form of an increase in asset purchases and any outcome that reveals anything less than JPY 10 trilion in asset purchases will provoke JPY buying in a market that is heavily short. However, the LDP’s strong showing in elections implies that markets will need to take seriously threats of more aggressive policy action over coming months, especially with regard to JPY strength. Indeed, weak export data revealed yesterday, while not solely attributable to JPY strength, will nonetheless, fuel more pressure for a weaker currency. Therefore, any pull back in USD/JPY will prove short lived as investors once again eye the JPY as the favoured short leg of carry trades.

Please note this will be my last blog post for 2012. Thank you for reading econometer.

Seasons Greetings and best wishes for the new year to all econometer.org readers.

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USD underperforms

The Fed expanded its asset purchases by buying $45 billion in longer dated Treasuries following the end of Operation Twist, with total purchases at USD 85 billion per month. The Fed went a step further by changing the guidance, now anticipating that policy will be maintained at an “exceptionally low range for the Fed Funds rate” as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6 ½ % and inflation no more than ½ % above the Fed 2% goal.

Equity market reaction was limited, with any positive boost dampened by the recognition that the Fed will not be able to offset the blow to the economy from the fiscal cliff. On this front, progress has been limited as the likelihood of a deal by the end of the year is diminishing by the day.

In Europe sentiment is somewhat better as hopes that the EU Council meeting today will yield an agreement on banking union and supervision. Final approval for the delayed Greek loan tranche is likely to be delivered following the completion of Greece’s debt buyback. The better news in Europe will be reflected in a decent reception to the Spanish and Italian bond offerings today.

The USD did not take too kindly to the latest efforts by the Fed to boost the economy although there are clearly diminishing returns as far as FX markets are concerned with regard to Fed QE. Nonetheless, the USD is coming under growing pressure into year end.

Next year assuming that the fiscal cliff in the US is resolved, with a limited fiscal drag on the economy, a relatively positive growth trajectory for the US alongside an expected increase in US bond yields will mean that the USD will still enjoy gains against currencies with weaker growth paths namely the EUR and JPY.

My forecasts for the USD index based on forecasts for its constituents show a gradual strengthening over the course of the next couple of years (82.4 and 85.7 by end-2013 and -2014, respectively) largely due to the USD’s expected appreciation versus EUR and JPY. In reality, this is misleading as improving risk appetite and continued capital inflows to EM and commodity currencies will mean that the USD will underperform.

USD under broad based pressure

There remains a great deal of angst in markets due to the lack of resolution to the US fiscal cliff, which is putting pressure on overall market sentiment as reflected in the multi day rise in the VIX fear gauge over recent days. The fact that both the US administration and senior Republicans are giving little ground in discussions suggests a deal is not in sight although the pressure for compromise will intensify as year end approaches.

The news in Europe is a little better as reflected in the narrowing in peripheral bond yields. There will be little directional influence on markets today, with trading likely to be subdued ahead of the US jobs report on Friday, with any news on the fiscal cliff also closely watched.

The USD continues to come under broad based pressure, with the USD index having lost around 2% of its value since 16 November. The lack of traction in terms of resolving the fiscal cliff and the weaker US data this week, namely the November ISM manufacturing index have weighed on the currency.

How much of the USD move is due to position adjustments as year end approaches fast or renewed confidence in the EUR is debatable but it is clear that the USD looks like it will end the year in a bad state. The ADP jobs report today may give further direction but it seems unlikely that pressure on the USD will abate ahead of the November payrolls data on Friday.

While the EUR’s gains are beginning to look overdone, the momentum for the currency continues to be to the topside as short positions continue to be covered into year end. The EUR’s appreciation is taking place hand in hand with the drop in peripheral bond yields. A positive reception for Greece’s debt buy back as well as Spain’s request for aid for its banking sector has also helped the currency.

Rumours of a German debt downgrade have done little to diminish the EUR’s appeal. An upcoming meeting of EU finance ministers next week ahead of the EU leaders’ summit to try and make some progress towards banking supervision is also hoped to deliver some good news. A test of sentiment will come from a Spanish bond auction today but this is unlikely to be much of an obstacle to the EUR. Near term EUR/USD resistance is seen around 1.3172.

Putting the brakes on the CNY

Markets are becoming increasingly headline driven, with risk appetite gyrating on any fresh lead on fiscal cliff developments. Initially risk assets dropped in the wake of weaker than expected US new home sales data and renewed fiscal cliff concerns but reversed course following more encouraging comments from US House speaker Boehner and President Obama who both indicated that a deal was moving closer to fruition. The comments also sparked a drop in the USD while gold prices came under pressure.

Meanwhile, Eurozone peripheral bond spreads continue to tighten in the wake of the Greek debt deal as tail risks continue to decline. An Italian debt auction may test the market’s new found confidence today. Incidentally the deal will be put to the vote tomorrow in Germany. Data releases are generally taking a back seat to fiscal cliff developments but once again there will be stark contrasts between Europe and the US, with weakening economic sentiment indicators in Europe on the one hand and an upward revision to US Q3 GDP on the other.

Currencies will continue to track the gyrations in risk, but in large part remain in well defined ranges. EUR/USD reversed its losses as fiscal cliff resolution hopes grew but will struggle on the top side. Comments by Moody’s in its credit review on Greece released this morning will also dent EUR sentiment with the ratings agency noting that Greek debt remains unsustainable even after the country’s debt deal. EUR/USD resistance is seen around 1.3023 while support around 1.2870 is expected to hold over the near term.

USD/JPY pushed back above the 80.00 level overnight but I would prefer to sell the currency pair on any run up to 82.50. While weak data such as the bigger than expected decline in October retail sales (-1.2% YoY) highlight the need for more aggressive policy, the “Abe” effect has largely been discounted and markets may wait for elections on December 16 before deliberating on further JPY direction. Ultimately I remain JPY bears but in the near term the up move looks overextended.

China has put the brakes on the CNY as fixings have been less strong over recent days. Given the strong correlation with many other Asian currencies this is resulting in more restraint across the Asian FX spectrum. The most impacted currencies will be the KRW and TWD, as they possess the highest sensitivities to CNY. A slowing in the pace of portfolio inflows, with notably South Korea and Indonesia seeing outflows of equity capital over the month, will also restrain Asian currencies.

USD pressured, limited gains for Asian currencies

Risk assets registered a positive performance over the past week despite the plethora of events / issues that remain unresolved. However, it’s back to business today with talks over Greek’s debt sustainability and resolution towards distribution of its next loan tranche set to resume.

Meanwhile, markets will digest the results of elections in the Spanish region of Catalonia which have fuelled greater uncertainty in the wake of the gains in seats for pro-referendum parties who won 87 of the Catalan parliament’s 135 seats. However, the results did not provide the strength of support for pro independence parties as had initially been feared, suggesting some relief for the EUR.

Together with the failure to make any progress on the EU budget it is clear that there are still many layers of uncertainty lying ahead for European markets. Nonetheless, optimism appears to be winning the day as the EUR and peripheral bonds shake off such concerns. The risk going forward is that the market is hoping for too much, with the risk / reward dynamic skewed asymmetrically in the wake of any failure to reach agreement especially regarding Greece.

News of healthy US Thanksgiving spending will be followed by data releases this week that are set to provide further signs of improvement although markets will remain focussed on any progress towards resolving the fiscal cliff. An upward revision to US Q3 GDP, gains in durable goods orders, and new home sales in October will provide encouraging news contributing to a tone of firmer risk appetite. This will be echoed by the Fed’s Beige Book.

Economic news in Europe (expected lower economic sentiment index) and in Japan (fourth consecutive decline in industrial production) will highlight the comparative outperformance of the US economy while adding pressure for more aggressive policy measures elsewhere.

The net FX impact of the market’s optimism is to sell USDs leaving it vulnerable in an environment of improving risk appetite. Nonetheless, given that the market is now pricing in a resolution to several of the issues noted above, USD weakness may prove limited from current levels. EUR/USD is set to face resistance around the 1.3023 level while USD/JPY will face strong resistance around 83.20.

Asian currencies have benefitted from the firmer tone to risk appetite (most except IDR and INR are strongly correlated to risk) but gains have been limited over the past week as central banks in the region increasingly resist further strength. The lack of upward trajectory in the CNY has been a key driver for the slower pace of appreciation of Asian currencies over recent days and I expect this trend to continue.

China may even countenance some softening in the CNY into year end suggests limited upside for Asian currencies into year end despite a firmer risk tone. The INR remains the major underperformer, with the currency continuing to suffer from domestic considerations, and benefitting the least from any improvement in risk appetite.

Edging away from the cliff

Risk appetite was decidedly firmer overnight as hopes of a US budget deal grew. Talks between President Obama and Congressional leaders have been labelled as ‘constructive’ implying some sign of compromise although there is a long way to go before a deal is likely. Sentiment was boosted further by encouraging housing news out the US, with home builders’ confidence and existing home sales beating expectations. Unfortunately housing starts data today will not be as upbeat.

News that France’s credit ratings were cut by Moody’s dampened the mood, ahead of a meeting by Eurozone officials to decide on the fate of Greece’s EUR 31.5 billion loan tranche. The French downgrade may cast a shadow over markets this morning but hopes of progress towards a solution to the fiscal cliff will keep markets buoyed.

Data releases in the Eurozone will do little to help the EUR given expectations of weak purchasing managers’ indices and a yet another drop in the German IFO business confidence survey over coming days. News on the Greek front might be a little better if the country’s loan tranche is approved today. However, any boost to EUR sentiment will be short lived as discussions about Greece’s sustainability and disagreements among its creditors hog the limelight.

My quantitative models suggest little directional bias, with EUR/USD close to its short term fair value. While all of this suggests that the EUR will fail to find much momentum its worth highlighting that EUR short speculative positioning is at its highest since 11 September and a great deal of bad news is already priced in.

While the Bank of Japan is set to deliver more easing over coming months today’s meeting will likely mark a pause in policy. I do not expect any surprises from the Bank of Japan today but the JPY remains on the back foot in the wake of calls for “unlimited easing” by the opposition LDP party. However, the outcome of elections is by no means clear cut and although the LDP will likely garner the lion’s share of the vote its policies may be constrained by coalition partners.

I remain cautious of calling the JPY higher from current levels, especially given that USD/JPY will be undermined somewhat by the drop in US bond yields. Moreover, my quantitative model shows a sell signal for USD/JPY. Technical resistance around 87.78 will likely cap any up move in the currency in the neat term.

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