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.

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.

Peering over the cliff

As the US edges closer to falling off the fiscal cliff budget discussions between US President Obama and Congressional leaders commencing today will garner most attention. Conciliatory signs from both sides suggest some attempt at compromise but tough starting points mean that it will not be easy to match rhetoric with reality.

Markets are clearly in nervous mood, with US stocks closing lower as risk aversion edged higher. Disappointing earnings from Wal-Mart Stores taken together with a weaker than anticipated Philly Fed survey in November and weekly jobless claims added another layer of negativity to the market. Despite the US-centric fiscal cliff risks the USD remains firm although notably its pace of appreciation has slowed, with the currency likely to make little headway in the near term.

Although unsurprising, data in Europe confirmed that the region fell back into recession, an outcome that will do little to ease tensions. Hopes of a final agreement on Greece’s loan tranche at next week’s Eurogroup meeting may however, limit any damage to Eurozone markets. The EUR has shown signs of bottoming out and may take further advantage of the respite from a more restrained USD. There is little of interest on the data front today, with Eurozone current account data, US industrial production and TICS flows the main highlights.

On the political front the dissolution of parliament in Japan is the highlight, with markets continuing to push the JPY lower as expectations of more aggressive action after elections to the weaken the currency grow. The fourth consecutive downgrade of Japan’s economic assessment by the government highlights the urgency for such action.

Asian currencies are finding a little more resistance to further gains as the appreciation of the CNY has stalled over recent days. The most sensitive currencies to the CNY including KRW and TWD will likely face most resistance to further gains. In contrast those currencies that are more USD sensitive including INR and MYR could take advantage of any pause in USD index gains.

CNY influence on Asian FX continues to grow

Asian currencies remain generally well supported both by a softer tone to the USD in general as well as a stronger Chinese currency, CNY. Since the USD/RMB high of 6.3964 on 25 July the RMB has appreciated by around 2.4% vs. USD. This equates to an annualized pace of appreciation of around 6.2%. The RMB is unlikely to continue to strengthen at such a rapid pace and could even be prone to a softer tone into year end.

Potential renewed weakness in the CNY could presage downside risks to Asian currencies. Also worth noting is the fact that equity portfolio capital inflows to Asian have slackened over recent weeks (Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan registered outflows over October), a factor that could also pose risks to Asian currencies.

The influence of the RMB on Asian FX has continued to grow. Correlations or sensitivities between Asian currencies and the CNY remain are stronger than Asian FX sensitivities to USD movements. The implication is that USD index gyrations are having less influence on Asian currencies.

The most correlated currencies with the CNY are KRW, SGD and TWD although all Asian currencies with the exception of the INR register statistically significant correlations with the movements of USD/CNY. Notably our quantitative models show that the KRW, SGD and TWD are overbought relative to their short term fair value estimates.

While the USD is still influential in driving some Asian currencies several currencies including KRW, CNY and IDR do not possess a statistically significant sensitivity to the USD over the past 3-months. Should the CNY undergo renewed weakness it will mean that the currencies noted above namely KRW, SGD and TWD will be the most vulnerable to weakness given their high sensitivity to CNY.

Equity flows to Asia surge

Equity flows to Asia have begun the year in solid form. Although not quite as strong as in 2010 the pace of recent acceleration in flows has been more rapid, suggesting that it will soon overtake the year to date inflows seen over 2010. In total Asia has registered around $4.955 billion in foreign equity inflows. Korea has received the biggest inflows at $2.4 billion followed by India $1.04bn and Taiwan $1.03 billion.

The Indian rupee (INR) has been a clear beneficiary of such flows while the Korean won (KRW) has also strengthened. I suspect that official resistance may have limited Taiwan dollar (TWD) gains but clearly the risk on start to the year has resulted in strengthening inflows and in turn stronger Asian currencies.

Unless there is a disaster in Greece or elsewhere in Europe next week there is little to stop the short term trend but I remain wary over coming weeks and am cautious about extrapolating this trend forward. Like in 2010 and 2011 equity flows began the year strongly only to drop over following weeks and currencies were not slow to follow.

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