US dollar pull back to prove short lived

Having spent the tail end of last week in Singapore and Phnom Penh presenting the Global outlook for 2014 to clients as part of our Asian roadshow it struck me that there is a strong consensus view about a number of market movements this year. In particular, most expect the USD to strengthen over 2014. Indeed just as it looked as though the USD was going to surge into the new year, along comes the US jobs report to spoil the party. Clearly, it’s not going to be a one way bet in 2014.

The surprisingly weak US December payrolls data in which only 74k jobs were added compared to consensus expectations of close to 200k helped to support expectations that Fed tapering would take place only gradually, lending a helping hand to risk assets at the turn of this week.

I don’t believe the jobs data materially changes the picture for the Fed. Adverse weather may have played a role in the weakness in jobs while complicating matters was the drop in the unemployment rate to 6.7% largely due to around 350,000 people leaving the labour force. The data resulted in a drop in US bond yields and a weaker USD although equity market reaction was more mixed. Meanwhile gold and other commodity prices rose.

While risk assets may find some support in the wake of the jobs report this week much of the US data slate will if anything highlight that economic growth is strengthening, suggesting a reversal of some of the price action in US Treasuries, USD and gold. Data releases include a likely healthy increase in core US retail sales in December together with gains in manufacturing confidence surveys (Empire and Philly Fed) and industrial output as well as a further increase in consumer confidence (Michigan sentiment survey).

Additionally several Fed speakers are on tap over coming days, which may give more colour on Fed thinking in the wake of the jobs report. However, it is doubtful that they will indicate that the Fed will not taper as expected in January.

Clearly markets were caught overly long USDs last week as reflected in CFTC IMM speculative positioning data as of 7th January which showed that net USD long positions had reached their highest since September 2013. The pull back in the USD is set to be short lived, however, especially if US data over coming days reveals further improvement as expected.

USD/JPY in particular bore the brunt of the pull back in US yields, as long positions were unwound. A Japanese holiday today may limit activity but much will depend on the propensity for US yields to bounce back, with 10 year US Treasury yields currently around 2.85% compared to around 2.97% on Friday.

Asian currencies have been the most sensitive to US Treasury yields gyrations over the past three months. In order of sensitivity to US 10 year Treasury yields the highest is the JPY, followed by MYR, THB, PHP and SGD. These currencies would be expected to benefit the most in the wake of the drop in yields at the end of last week although as noted any pull back in US yields is likely to prove temporary. While the THB may suffer from political concerns in the near term the other currencies are likely to see some short term gains.

Cautious start to the year

Happy New Year!

2013 ended with a solid performance by US equities and further pressure on US Treasuries helped by a bigger than expected increase in US December consumer confidence. The S&P 500 ended close to 30% higher over the year while 10 year Treasury yields rose above 3%, registering an overall rise of around 108 basis points over 2013. In contrast commodity prices dropped sharply, with the CRB index recording a sharp drop and ending 5% lower over the year. Meanwhile the USD index ended the year close to where it began although this performance belies some significant volatility over the year, with losses against the EUR and gains against the JPY.

The first trading day of 2014 begins on a more cautious note as a disappointing reading for the December Chinese purchasing managers’ index (51.0 versus 51.2 consensus forecast) will cast a shadow over markets today. Indeed, the data alongside weaker commodity prices will weigh on AUD. Japanese markets will be closed over the rest of the week, while many market participants will not return until next week, suggesting limited activity. Nonetheless, as far as the JPY is concerned the currency is set to remain on the back foot versus USD given the ongoing widening in real yield differentials between the US and Japan.

Meanwhile EUR/USD looks like it will struggle to make much headway over the short term, with only the final reading of the December Eurozone PMI due for release today. The data will likely confirm a relatively healthy looking reading of 52.7, its highest reading since May 2011 but will unlikely provoke much of a market reaction. Instead markets will look ahead to the European Central Bank meeting next week. Recent ECB comments suggest little chance of another rate cut anytime soon despite a very subdued inflationary backdrop. Against this background any EUR slippage in the short term is likely to be limited although further out the relatively inferior Eurozone growth outlook compared to the US, highlights plenty of scope for downside EUR pressure.

Asian currencies will also look somewhat subdued in the wake of China’s softer PMI reading. Additionally a bigger than expected decline in Singapore Q4 GDP release (-2.7% QoQ annualised) will also not bode well although the drop in GDP will be seen as temporary, with official estimates still pointing to growth around 2-4% for 2014. In contrast robust export data from South Korea will be positive for the KRW in line with our view that the currency will be one of 2014’s outperformers along with the TWD and CNH. Elsewhere the THB continues to be hamstrung by political concerns, which are showing little sign of easing ahead of planned elections February 2.

Rising risk aversion

The US ADP November jobs report and October new home sales both beat expectations yesterday piling on the pressure on US Treasuries and adding further weight to support those looking for the Fed to taper at the December 17-18 FOMC meeting. Consequently non farm payrolls expectation will likely be revised higher from the current consensus of around 180k. In contrast the ISM non manufacturing index came in below consensus, with the jobs component slipping. US equities ended marginally lower while the USD held its ground. However, risk measures such as the VIX “fear gauge” moved higher. Rising risk aversion may reflect expectations of imminent tapering and some angst ahead of US budget talks.

US November payrolls data to be released tomorrow will be crucial to provide more decisive clues to the timing of Fed tapering. Attention ahead of the jobs report will turn to the European Central Bank policy decision where no action is expected although some downward revisions to staff forecasts are likely. We continue to expect a more aggressive ECB stance into 2014. The Bank of England and Norges Bank will also decide on policy rates but no change is expected in both cases. In the US an upward revision to Q3 US GDP is expected to around 3.1% QoQ annualised while jobless claims will also be in focus. Market nervousness is likely to continue today although activity is likely to be limited ahead of the US payrolls data tomorrow.

The USD should be supported due to higher US Treasury yields although USD/JPY has lost some ground in the wake of higher risk aversion. The large short JPY market position may also be limiting the JPY’s downside for now. EUR/USD is trading shy of its recent highs above 1.36 and could be vulnerable to a dovish ECB statement today as well as to growth forecast downgrades by the ECB. AUD continues to remain under pressure having traded just below 0.90 overnight in the wake of disappointing GDP data yesterday and is likely to remain vulnerable to further slippage. CAD was further undermined by a relatively dovish Bank of Canada statement following the decision overnight to leave policy rates unchanged.

Given that US Treasury yields have risen by around 33bps since the end of October it is worth looking at which currencies are most sensitive to rising yields. In Asia the most correlated currencies with 10 year US Treasury yields over the last 3 months and therefore most vulnerable currencies are the SGD, THB, and MYR. The least sensitive have been CNY, IDR and KRW. Playing long KRW / short SGD appears to be a good way of playing an environment of rising US yields, especially given that yields are set to continue to rise over the coming months.

Awaiting the Fed

Another positive day for US equities overnight reflected the ongoing gradual but steady improvement in risk sentiment. The USD also managed to shake off some of its malaise, rising against most major currencies although US Treasuries continued to flat line. Data in the US did little to change expectations for the Fed FOMC policy decision tonight; headline retail sales dropped (-0.1%) in September but core orders looked healthier (0.4%), while US consumer confidence slipped by more than expected in October (71.2) and US house prices rose (0.93%) in August.

Direction will be limited ahead of the Fed outcome where markets hope to garner some clues on the timing of the beginning of tapering. However, given that the consensus has clearly shifted to a March 2014 beginning of tapering it is difficult to see how the Fed could build on already dovish market expectations. Ahead of the Fed decision we will be able to assess further evidence on the state of the private sector jobs market, with October ADP jobs scheduled for release.

Given the risk / reward around today’s Fed meeting we remain constructive on the USD, with further albeit gradual recovery ahead. Indeed, it is encouraging that the EUR failed to hold onto gains even after ECB member Nowotny effectively gave the green light for further EUR strength when he noted that policy makers `have to live with` a strong EUR. EUR will continue to look a sell on rallies above 1.3800.

Nototny’s sanguine tone is not shared elsewhere as reflected in attempts by RBA Governor Stevens to talk down the AUD this week or by NZ’s central bank, noting that the strength of the NZD could give scope to delay interest rate hikes. GBP also seems to be failing to shake off the after effects of relative dovish comments by Bank of England MPC members over recent days. The overall winner appears to the USD especially as a lot of dovishness is already priced into the currency.

The USD is also set to take a firmer tone against Asian currencies over the short term. Asian currencies most sensitive to USD strength are SGD, MYR and PHP and these currencies will be most exposed in the short term to further downside risks. IDR also looks vulnerable given the continued outflows of equity portfolio capital from Indonesia over recent weeks (month to date outflows USD 175 million). KRW looks more stable although disappointing September industrial production data released this morning will put a firm cap on the currency.

Not so straightforward

To casual observers the global market picture look very good, reflective of an improving growth and earnings story; risk assets continue to rally as central banks keep the liquidity taps open. In reality the picture is not as black and white as the US economy appears to be doing better than most other major economies despite the impact of the sequester and tax hikes while other economies are in differing states of health.

Japan’s turbo charged stimulus measures have helped contribute to a solid GDP growth outcome in the first quarter and to the rally in risk assets but much needs to be done in terms of reforms. Indeed, the jury is still out whether growth recovery can be sustained (just look back at the growth spurts and subsequent declines following past stimulus).

Europe remains in the doldrums as the impact of austerity weighs heavily, with even the core economies facing growing economic pressures. It’s no wonder that the anti austerity backlash continues to grow. While Eurozone data this week may look a little perkier than usual, with gains in the May purchasing managers’ confidence indices and the German IFO business climate confidence survey (both good forward looking indicators) likely, the overall picture will remain one of contraction. All of this will be unhelpful for the EUR which looks set to test its year low around 1.2745 versus USD.

US outperformance is fuelling a rise in US bond yields and consequently a stronger USD as expectations that the Fed will want to taper off asset purchases sooner rather than later grows. Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony this week will therefore be closely regarded as clues are sought However, he is unlikely to suggest that the Fed is verging on any reduction in asset purchases. Although US data was mixed last week the recovery theme will continue this week, with housing data and durable goods orders set to record gains.

In Japan the highlight of the week is the Bank of Japan policy meeting. Given the aggressiveness of recent measures expect a pause from the central bank at this meeting although the JPY will remain under pressure as the US / Japan yield differential continues to widen in favour of the USD. Nonetheless, comments by Japan’s Economy Minister Amari emphasising the negative impact of a weaker JPY may help to slow the pace of JPY decline.

The general strength in the USD has contributed to growing pressure on many Asian currencies. Only the THB, CNY and MYR have recorded gains this year. Other currencies including the KRW, TWD, and SGD have been particularly vulnerable to a weaker JPY. A slower pace of JPY decline will help these currencies although the prospects of further monetary easing and regional tensions will dampen any upside in the short term.

JPY selling momentum slows

Markets have few leads to trade off following yesterday’s President’s Day holiday in the US. Nonetheless, caution appears to be settling in ahead of this weekend’s Italian elections, especially in Europe.

European Central Bank President Draghi’s address to the EU parliament did little to stir markets as he didn’t elaborate much on his post ECB press conference in February. The most notable comment was that he urged the G20 to have very “strong verbal discipline” on talking about currency movements.

Despite the Italian election caution most risk measures appear to be well behaved. Equity volatility has continued to drop and gold prices have stabilised following the recent sharp decline. The highlight of the data calendar today is a likely gain in the February German ZEW survey.

Currency markets are rangebound but it is notable that USD/JPY has struggled to sustain gains above the 94.00 level, with upward momentum in the currency pair appearing to fade. Comments by Japan’s Finance Minister Aso that the government was not considering changing the central bank law at present or buying foreign bonds helped to dampen USD/JPY.

Although the G20 meeting effectively gave the green light for further JPY declines, a lot is in the price in terms of policy expectations and any further JPY weakness is likely to be much more gradual. USD/JPY 94.46 will offer strong resistance to further upside.

Asian currencies continue to deliver a mixed performance, with JPY sensitive currencies including SGD, KRW and TWD remaining on the back foot. The SGD is the most highly correlated Asian currency with JPY, with a high and significant correlation between the two. Any further drop in JPY will clearly bode badly for SGD but the inability of the JPY to weaken further may help to moderate pressure on the SGD in the near term.

Although the KRW has rebounded over recent days one risk to the currency is continued outflows of equity portfolio capital. South Korea is one of the only countries in Asia to have recorded outflows (around USD 1.2 billion year to date). However, this month the outflow appears to have reversed, with around USD 500 million in inflows registered month to date. In part the outflows of equity capital from South Korea in January reflected concerns about North Korea. Such concerns have receded but the risks remain of more sabre rattling and/or more nuclear tests from the North.

Sell USD / Asia FX on rallies

The biggest move this year appears to have come from the VIX ‘fear gauge’ which has dropped sharply contributing to an overall improvement in risk appetite. Although the VIX dropped further overnight equity sentiment overall continues to sour as fiscal cliff euphoria faded further and markets brace for the reality of likely protracted negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and avert huge spending cuts.

Caution over a plethora of fourth quarter earnings reports over coming weeks is also limiting upside for risk assets. Economic drivers were thin on the ground overnight but weak German exports data (which likely contributes to an overall decline in GDP in Q4) an increase in Eurozone unemployment and rumours of a French ratings downgrade did not help.

In the US the news was a little better as small business confidence reversed its sharp November drop. A limited data slate today will leave markets focussed on upcoming earnings, with consensus estimates for Q4 at a relatively low 2.9% QoQ.

Asian currencies have registered mixed performances so far this year. Resistance from some Asian central banks, notably Korea, has limited the appreciation of currencies. The incentive to prevent further strength has increased especially as a key competitor the JPY has weakened.

Maintaining its robust performance over 2012 the PHP has been the best Asian FX performer so far in 2013 followed by the THB. Similarly the IDR has maintained its negative performance registered last year. SGD is also likely to underperform further as the currency finds itself being increasingly used as a funding currency for taking long positions in other Asian FX.

We note that risk appetite has a limited correlation with Asian currencies at present but firm capital inflows will continue to provide support, with a sell USD / Asia FX on rallies environment set to persist.

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