USD/JPY volatility at an extreme low

USD/JPY will continue to struggle to break higher in the short term, with the currency pair restrained by capped US yields. Indeed US Treasury yields have slipped over recent days. The range bound trading pattern for USD/JPY has resulted in a declining trend in both implied and realized volatility. The drop in volatility has been particularly sharp, with 1 month volatility at an extreme level according to our z-score analysis.

The implication is that it is cheap to USD/JPY volatility although it may need a trigger from a further increase in US yields and / or major improvement in risk appetite to spur an increase in volatility. Comments by the Bank of Japan’s Iwata yesterday that its not necessarily good if the JPY keeps depreciating is not conducive for higher volatility in the currency pair but likely further stimulus from the BoJ alongside wider yield differentials with the US, will mean that downward JPY pressure will resume soon at a more rapid pace in the months ahead.

USD/JPY bracing for a rebound

In the post below I look at the arguments for JPY weakness in the weeks and months ahead.

A combination of elevated risk aversion and a narrowing US / Japan yield differential have been the major contributors to the strengthening in the JPY over January resulting in safe haven JPY demand and repatriation flows. The sensitivity of the JPY to both factors has been especially strong and it will require a reversal of one if not both of these to spur another wave of JPY selling.

Improving risk appetite required
If there is not a metamorphosis of the current bout of pressure into a full blown crisis as seems likely, risk appetite will improve and the upward pressure on the JPY will abate. Any improvement in risk appetite will however, be gradual and prone to volatility, especially in an environment of Fed tapering. It may therefore require more than simply improving risk appetite to weaken the JPY anew.

Japanese equity performance will be eyed
Of course associated with any improvement in risk appetite has to be a reversal of the recent negative performance of Japanese equities. Although Japanese equities will continue to be hostage to the fortunes of global risk sentiment, assuming that “Abenomics” continues to deliver results and growth in Japan continues to pick up (our forecast this year is 2% YoY GDP growth) further fallout in the Japanese equity market may be limited.

Flows will need to reverse
Over the past several weeks Japan has registered net inflows of capital in large part due to repatriation by Japanese investors. JPY has faced upward pressure from such inflows over recent weeks. Looking ahead assuming that risk appetite improves and US yields increase net capital outflows are expected to resume, which will put further downward pressure on the JPY.

Yield differentials will be particularly important
The extra dose of JPY pressure and important determinant of renewed weakness will be a re-widening of the US / Japan real yield differential. Eventually US bond yields will resume their ascent, driving the yield differential with Japan wider, and putting upward pressure on USD/JPY. The same argument will apply for EUR/JPY, albeit to a lesser degree.

Speculation positioning more balanced
The recent short covering rally has likely resulted in a market more evenly balanced in terms of positioning, providing a solid footing for the next leg lower in JPY. Indeed, compared to the three month average, JPY positioning has bounced back and is susceptible to a rebuilding of JPY shorts over coming weeks, driving the JPY lower.

Model points to renewed JPY weakness
Combining the factors above (except positioning) and adding in forecasts for US bond yields, risk aversion and conservative estimates for a recovery in Japanese equity markets over coming months, my quantitative model for USD/JPY highlights the prospects of a major rebound in the currency pair.

Highlights this week

Better than expected Chinese data over the weekend, speculation that Greece is close to reaching its debt buyback target and even some signs of progress in reaching a resolution to avert the fiscal cliff set up risk assets for a generally positive start to the week. Talks between the administration and senior Republicans will continue this week but it appears that some senior Republicans are willing to give up their objections to tax hikes on the very wealthy.

The November US jobs report released at the end of last week which revealed a 146k increase in payrolls and a drop in the unemployment rate to 7.7% is likely to have little influence at the turn of the week. The report was met with a muted reaction. While on the face of it the data was better than expected, downward revisions to past months and a surprising lack of impact from Hurricane Sandy left markets somewhat perplexed.

However, not everything is rosy. Last week’s sharp downward growth revisions to Eurozone growth by the European Central Bank (ECB), a plunge in US consumer sentiment and comments from Italian Prime Minister Monti that he intends to resign will cast a shadow over markets, restraining any upside.

Although activity will likely continue to thin as holidays approach there is still plenty too chew on this week. In the US the Fed is set to continue purchasing USD 85 billion of longer dated securities following the end of Operation Twist but this should come as little surprise to the market and therefore will yield little reaction. There will be some encouraging news on the consumer as retail sales bounce back in November.

Across the pond the European Council meeting beginning on Thursday will be in focus, with banking union and bank recapitalisation among the topics up for discussion. Given the hint of monetary easing by the ECB markets will scrutinise upcoming data for the timing but a likely increase in the German ZEW investor confidence survey in December and stabilisation in the Eurozone composite purchasing manager’s index will not prove compelling enough to warrant an imminent rate cut.

Elsewhere in Japan the upcoming elections will mark the highlight of the calendar over the weekend although the weaker than expected Q3 GDP reading this morning (-0.9% QoQ) and expected deterioration in the Tankan survey later in the week will maintain the pressure for more aggressive policy action and a weaker JPY.

EUR took a hit from the ECB’s dovish stance last week and will not take too kindly to the news of Monti’s intended resignation after the fiscal 2013 budget in Italy. EUR/USD 1.2880 still marks a solid support level for the currency.

USD/JPY continues to probe higher but extreme short market positioning will likely limit the ability of the currency pair to push higher. On the topside 83.15 will market strong resistance for the currency pair.

AUD and NZD look generally well supported, with Chinese data over the weekend giving further support although for AUD/USD 1.0519 will continue to act a tough technical barrier to crack.

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.

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