Swiss franc under pressure

The US debt ceiling continues to garner most attention in markets, with US Treasury Secretary Geithner warning in a letter to Congress about the adverse economic impact of the failure to raise the ceiling. President Obama gave a similar warning, but with current extraordinary measures due to run out between mid February and early March timing is running out.

While Fed Chairman Bernanke echoed this assessment markets found some relief in his speech as it did not repeat the views of some Fed officials in hinting at an early ending of QE. Bernanke qualified his comments by stating that believes that inflation will stay below 2% over the medium term.

EUR/USD could not hold onto highs around 1.3404 but the currency pair does not looks as though it is running out of momentum. As sentiment towards the Eurozone periphery continues to improve and inflows into Eurozone assets increases the EUR is finding itself as a key beneficiary. However, the strength of the currency will only reinforce the weak economic backdrop across the region, which eventually will come back to bite the EUR.

Indeed data today is likely to confirm that the German economy recorded a weak pace of growth over 2012 finishing the year with a contraction in activity over Q4. Our forecast of no growth in the Eurozone this year could face downside risks should the EUR continue to rise. This is unlikely to stem the near term upside for EUR/USD but adverse growth and yield differentials compared to the US will mean that gains in EUR/USD will not be sustained.

The long awaited move higher in EUR/CHF appears to be finally occurring. EUR/CHF is trading at its highest level in over a year and looks set to make further gains. The fading of Eurozone crisis fears, better global economic developments and search for yield, are combining to pressure the CHF versus EUR although USD/CHF is trading near multi month lows.

Additionally improving sentiment outside of Switzerland is not echoed within the country as domestic indicators have worsened recently such as the KoF leading indicator, adding further pressure for a weaker CHF. Recent inflation data revealing a 0.4% YoY in December, the 15th month of annual declines have reinforced the fact that the currency is overly strong. EUR/CHF looks set to move higher, with the December 2011 high of 1.2444 the next target.

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.

No Let Up in USD Pressure

At the end of a momentous week for currency markets it’s worth taking stock of how things stand. Much uncertainty remains about the global growth outlook, especially with regard to the US economy, potential for a double-dip and further Fed quantitative easing. Although there is little chance of QE2 being implemented at next week’s Fed FOMC meeting speculation will likely remain rife until there is clearer direction about the path of the US economy.

In Europe, sovereign debt concerns have eased as reflected in the positive reception to debt auctions this week. Nonetheless, after a strong H1 2010 in terms of eurozone economic growth the outlook over the rest of the year is clouded. Such uncertainty means that markets will also find it difficult to find a clear direction leaving asset markets at the whim of day to day data releases and official comments.

The added element of uncertainty has been provided by Japan following its FX intervention this week. Whilst Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention this will not only keep the JPY on the back foot but will provide a much needed prop for the USD in general. Indeed Japan’s intervention has had the inadvertent effect of slowing but not quite stopping the decline in the USD, at least for the present.

The fact that Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention suggests that markets will be wary of selling the USD aggressively in the short term. The headwinds on the USD are likely to persist for sometime however, regardless of intervention by Japan and/or other Asian central banks across Asia, until the uncertainty over the economy and QE2 clears.

Japan’s intervention has not gone down well with the US or European authorities judging by comments made by various officials. In particular, the FX intervention comes at a rather sensitive time just as the US is piling on pressure on China to allow its currency the CNY to strengthen further. Although US Treasury Secretary Geithner didn’t go as far as proposing trade and legal measures in his appearance before Congress yesterday there is plenty of pressure from US lawmakers for the administration to take a more aggressive stance, especially ahead of mid-term Congressional elections in November. Ironically, the pressure has intensified just as China has allowed a more rapid pace of CNY nominal appreciation over recent days although it is still weaker against its basket according to our calculations.

Another country that has seen its central bank intervening over many months is Switzerland, with the SNB having been aggressively intervening to prevent the CHF climbing too rapidly. However, in contrast to Japan the SNB is gradually stepping back from its intervention policy stating yesterday that it would only intervene if the risk of deflation increased. Even so, Japan may have lent the Swiss authorities a hand, with EUR/CHF climbing over recent days following Japan’s intervention.

The move in EUR/CHF accelerated following yesterday’s SNB policy meeting in which the Bank cut its inflation forecasts through 2013, whilst stating that the current policy stance in “appropriate”. Moreover, forecasts of “marked” slowdown in growth over the rest of the year highlight the now slim chance of policy rates rising anytime soon. Markets will eye technical resistance around 1.3459 as a near term target but eventually the CHF will likely resume its appreciation trend, with a move back below EUR/CHF 1.3000 on the cards.

PIIGS fears fuelling risk aversion

Risk aversion has come back with a vengeance over the last 10 days driven by a host of concerns that continue to damage market sentiment. As has been evident over the past year the USD and JPY remain the best currency plays against the background of rising risk aversion and both currencies look well supported.

Market concerns are not going away quickly but some of the fears plaguing markets have at least receded especially on the US political front, with Obama’s State of the Union address, Geithner’s testimony on AIG and Bernanke’s reappointment all passing without too much incident, at least from a market perspective. I still believe that market fears are overblown but it is clearly evident that the market is not in the mood to concur. More pain is likely in the weeks ahead.

Euro-sovereign spreads continue to suffer from the ongoing Greek saga whilst the other major fear remains further monetary tightening in China. Rumours that China is about to imminently revalue the CNY are also running rife. The bigger than expected hike in the reserve ratio in India reflects the fact that Asia is on a faster track to tighten policy than Western economies.

As regular readers probably noticed, my articles on econometer.org have been sporadic recently. This is due to the fact that I have been on the road for the last two weeks giving client seminars across several countries in Asia. Without giving too much away it is evident that pessimism is pervasive and most investors I polled are looking for a “W” or “double dip” profile for economic growth in the G7 economies over coming months. Hardly anyone looked for a “V”.

The other casualty emanating from Greece’s woes, as well as worries that other European PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) face ratings downgrades, is the EUR. EUR/USD slipped below the psychologically important level of 1.40 this week and is showing no sign of turning around. Warnings by S&P ratings that Portugal faces challenges on the fiscal front show that these sovereign concerns will be with us for a long while yet.

After letting investors believe that the European Commission would offer no support for Greece, there appears to be a growing realization that Greece is not simply a local problem but a Euro wide problem, as noted by European Commission President Barroso. Whilst this may be good for Greek debt the path to recovery is still likely to be a massively painful one, and the EUR may gain little support from this news.

The UK has not escaped the clutches of ratings agencies and warnings by S&P that UK banks are no longer among the “most stable and low-risk” in the world highlights the headwinds faced by GBP at present. The weaker than expected out-turn for Q4 GDP (0.1%) highlights the fact that UK economic recovery is fragile, which in turn plays negatively for the banking sector. This news has put a break on GBP but there appears to be plenty of demand for GBP above 1.600 vs USD.

Economic reality check supports dollar

The US dollar appears to be making a tentative recovery of sorts at least when taking a look at the performance of the US dollar index.  Much of this can be attributable to a softer tone to equities. The S&P 500 registered its biggest back to back quarterly rally since 1975 over Q3 and either through profit taking or renewed economic doubts, stocks may be in for shakier ground into Q4. 

This increase in equity pressure/risk aversion is being triggered by weaker data. Since the Fed FOMC on 24th September the run of US data has generally disappointed expectations; in addition to the ISM survey, existing and new home sales, durable goods orders, consumer confidence and ADP jobs data all failed to match forecasts.   This list was joined by the September jobs data which revealed a bigger than expected 263k drop in payrolls.  Consequently doubts about the pace of recovery have intensified as markets face up to a reality check.

The dollar’s firmer tone is not just being helped by weaker stocks but also by plenty of official speakers discussing currency moves. Although this is potentially a dangerous game considering the recent turnaround in Japanese official comments on the Japanese yen the net effect is to support the dollar.  In particular, Treasury Secretary Geithner stressed the importance of a strong dollar, whilst European officials including Trichet, Almunia and Junker appear to have become more concerned with the strength of the euro. 

In the current environment such comments will contribute to putting further pressure on the euro which in any case has lagged the strengthening in other currencies against the dollar over recent months.   Although ECB President Trichet highlighted “excess volatility” in his comments about currencies overnight implied FX volatility is actually relatively low having dropped significantly over recent months.  The real reason for European official FX concerns is quite simply the fact that the eurozone remains highly export dependent and that recovery will be slower the stronger the euro becomes.  

It’s not just G10 officials that are becoming concerned about currency strength against the dollar as Asian central banks have not only been jawboning but also intervening to prevent their currencies from strengthening against the dollar.   A firmer dollar tone is likely to put Asian currencies on the back foot helping to alleviate some of the upward pressure over the short term but the overall direction for Asian FX is still upwards.

Backing the dollar

There has been no let up in the bullish tone to markets over recent weeks. Optimism is dominating. Meanwhile, commodity prices continue to remain firmly supported, with the CRB commodities index up around 30% from its early March low. Bank funding has improved sharply, with indicators such as the Libor-OIS spread moving to its lowest spread since the beginning of February 2008 whilst the Ted spread is now close to where it was all the way back in August 2007.

Conversely, there is not much sign of a let up in pressure on the dollar despite assurances from US Treasury Secretary Geithner during his visit to China. Much of the move in the dollar continues to be driven by improvements in risk appetite but worries about the sustainability of foreign buying of US assets have increased too.

Russia’s proposal to create a new supranational currency has dealt the dollar another blow but it was notable that India, China and South Korea were reported to express confidence in the dollar, stating that there is no alternative to the dollar as a reserve currency. Such comments highlight that despite political motivation to move away from the dollar it is no easy process.

The comments from India, China and South Korea, three of the world’s biggest reserve holders reflect the growing concerns from official accounts about 1) dollar weakness getting out of control and 2) US bond yields pushing higher. Even though foreign central banks will continue to diversify the last thing they want to do is to destroy the value of their massive amounts of US asset holdings so don’t expect a quick move out of dollars from central banks despite the rhetoric from Russia and others.

Russia has said that a debate about the dominance of the USD will take place when BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries meet on June 16. Although the rhetoric from Russia may add to dollar worries the reality is that it is highly unlikely that any form of concrete plan will be easily developed to shift away from the dollar. Political motivations aside, even Russian President Medvedev admits it’s an “idea for the future”.

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