Asian currencies on the up

The third quarter of 2009 has proven to be another negative one for the US dollar.  Over the period the dollar index fell by over 4%.  The only major currency to lose ground against the dollar over this period was the British pound.  Most other currencies, especially the so called “risk currencies” which had come under huge pressure at the height of the financial crisis, registered strong gains led by the New Zealand dollar, Swedish krona and Australian dollar.  Although the euro also strengthened against the dollar it lagged gains in other currencies over the quarter.

Asian currencies also registered gains against the dollar in Q3 but to a lesser extent than G10 currencies.  Asian currency appreciation was led by the Korean won, Indonesian rupiah and Singapore dollar, respectively.  The under performer over Q3 was the Indian rupee which actually depreciated against the US dollar slightly.  The reason for the smaller pace of appreciation for most Asian currencies was due mainly to intervention by Asian central banks to prevent their respective currencies from strengthening too rapidly, rather than due to any inherent weakness in sentiment.

In fact, Asian currencies would likely be much stronger if it wasn’t for such FX interventions.  A good indication of the upward pressure on Asian currencies can be found from looking at the strength of capital inflows into local stock markets over recent months.  South Korea has registered the most equity capital inflows so far this year, with close to $20 billion of flows into Korean equities year to date but in general most Asian stock markets have registered far stronger inflows compared with last year.   

For the most part, balance of payments positions are also strong.  For example, South Korea recorded a current account surplus of $28.15 billion so far this year, compared to a deficit of $12.58bn over the same period last year.  This is echoed across the region.  Although surpluses are expected to narrow over coming months due mainly to a deterioration in the terms of trade, the overall health of external positions across the region will remain strong and supportive of further currency appreciation.  

The outlook for the final quarter of 2009 is therefore likely to be positive for Asian currencies, with the US dollar set to weaken further against most currencies.  Some risk will come from a potential reversal in global equity market sentiment but overall, further improvements in risk appetite will support capital inflows into the region.  Capital will be attracted by the fact that growth in Asia will continue to out perform the rest of the world and yet again only interventions by central banks will prevent a more rapid appreciation of Asian currencies.

Contrasting fortunes for GBP and JPY

The main FX movers over recent days have been JPY and GBP. Japan’s non interventionist FX stance and the approach of fiscal half year end on September 30 have given markets plenty of appetite to push the JPY higher.  In particular a change in Japanese tax rules which waives taxes on repatriated profits suggests there will be more repatriation flows than usual ahead of fiscal half year end.  Such repatriation flows have played a role in the appreciation of the JPY.    

Even if such flows do not actually materialise the mere speculation that they exist will be sufficient to keep the JPY supported.  Helping the JPY on its way is the view that Japanese officials are not particularly concerned about a strengthening JPY although it is worth noting that Japan’s new finance minister Fujii did note that he was carefully watching the JPY’s rise.  Nonetheless, it appears that the new government’s policy in Japan is in sharp contrast to the previous government’s FX policy which favoured a weaker JPY.  

The positive shift in JPY sentiment over recent weeks has been particularly evident in speculative positioning data which reveals that net JPY speculative positions have hit their highest since 3 February 2009, a sharp turnaround from negative net positioning just three months ago.  Further JPY gains are likely over the short term as speculative appetite for the currency continues to improve. 

In contrast to Japan, UK officials appear to be more comfortable with a weaker currency. Recent comments by Bank of England (BoE) Governor King that a weaker GBP would help exporters has weighed on GBP.  Consequently, speculative sentiment for GBP deteriorated particularly sharply last week, with CFTC IMM data revealing the biggest short GBP positioning since early April 2009.  Even though the latest UK Monetary Policy Committee minutes revealed no sign that the BoE is contemplating expanding quantitative easing, GBP continues to be a much unloved currency.  

Some likely improvements in economic data this week may provide relief to GBP but it will prove limited against the weight of negative GBP sentiment.  The Hometrack housing survey revealed a further increase in UK house prices in September and data this week will likely reveal an upside revision to Q2 GDP, and an improvement in manufacturing confidence.  Overall, despite the encouraging data GBP/USD looks vulnerable to a further downside push.

Key events for FX markets this week

Key events this week include the Fed FOMC and G20 meetings .  The G20 meeting is likely to be a non-event as far as markets are concerned.  There will be plenty of discussion about co-ordinating exit strategies but officials are set to repeat the commitment to maintain stimulus policies until recovery proves sustainable.  

There is likely to be little emphasis on currencies despite the fact that the dollar is trading around its lowest level in a year, except perhaps at the fringes of the meeting, with focus in particular on Japan’s new government’s pro yen policy.  

Regulation will also figure high amongst the topics debated but this will have little impact on markets over the short term.  Another topic that could be debated is protectionism, especially in light of the US decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tyres.

Ahead of the G20 meeting the Fed FOMC meeting is unlikely to result in any change in interest rates but the statement is likely to be cautiously upbeat in line with Fed Chairman Bernanke’s recent comments that the recession is “very likely over”.  The statement will be scrutinised for clues to the timing of policy reversal, especially given recent speculation that a couple of FOMC members were advocating an early exit.  Given that the dollar has suffered due to its funding currency appeal, any hint that some Fed officials are turning more hawkish could give the currency some much needed relief but we doubt this will last long. 

In contrast to speculation of a hawkish shift in thinking by some Fed members the Bank of England appears to be moving in the opposite direction.  The MPC minutes on Wednesday will be viewed to determine just how close the BoE was to extending quantitative easing and reducing interest rates on bank reserves at its last meeting. 

Sterling (GBP) has been a clear underperformer over recent weeks and a dovish tint to the minutes will act as another factor weighing on the currency as speculation over further action intensifies ahead of the next meeting.  

Sterling is also struggling against the euro having hit a five month low.  A combination of factors have hit the currency including concerns about quantitative easing expansion, the health of the banking system, and the latest blow coming from a the Bank of England in its Quarterly Bulletin where it states that GBP’s long run sustainable exchange rate may have fallen due to the financial crisis.   

Against this background it is not surprising that sterling was the only major currency against in which speculative positioning actually deteriorated versus the dollar last week (according to the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders report).   It is difficult to see any sterling recovery over the short term against this background, with a re-test of the 9 July low just under GBP/USD 1.60 in focus.

Catching up with reality

Markets have had an exhilarating run up over recent weeks.  Since the start of the month the S&P 500 has risen by close to 7%,gaining around 58% from its March low, as the evidence of global economic turnaround has strengthened and the outlook for earnings improved.

Nonetheless, the rally in equities has meant that valuations are starting to look stretched again. For instance the price / earnings ratio on the S&P 500 has risen to its highest level since January 2004, perhaps hinting at the need for a degree of investor caution in the days and weeks ahead.

Other factors aside from the pace of the move also call for some restraint to market optimism such as the potential for escalation in trade tensions between the US and China, the imposition of regulations on banks and the timing of reversal of extreme stimulus measures. 

As the panic has left markets over recent months volatility has eased as reflected in the VIX index which has dropped to around its lowest level since September 2008, just before it spiked massively higher in a matter of weeks in the wake of the Lehman’s blow up. 

This has been almost perfectly echoed in the move in currency volatility, which has dropped to around the levels last seen a year ago for major currencies.  These levels are not quite pre-crisis levels but for the most part pre-date the collapse of Lehman Brothers, reversing almost all the spike in risk aversion that took place from a year ago. 

It is probably not too much of a stretch to state that having expunged the shock of Lehmans and the worst fears about the global economy from measures of risk and volatility the room for further improvements may be somewhat more limited.  This may be countered by the fact that economic data continues to deliver positive surprises relative to consensus, providing fuel for a further rally in risk appetite. 

However, a lot of good news must surely be in the price by now and it is likely that even the most bearish of forecasters has to acknowledge that an upswing in activity is underway. This ought to ensure that consensus forecasts catch up with reality, leaving less room for positive surprises and perversely less support for equity markets. 

The rally in risk appetite and equity markets has taken its toll on the US dollar which has had a gruelling few weeks during which the US dollar index (a basket of currencies versus USD including EUR, JPY, GBP, CAD, SEK and CHF) has hit new lows almost on daily basis.  Any pause in dollar selling driven by a softer tone to equities is likely to provide better opportunities for investors to take short positions in the currency given that little else has changed in terms of USD sentiment.   How far can the dollar drop?  Well for a start the April 2008 low around 71.329 for the USD index beckons and after that its into uncharted territory.

Japanese yen and FX sensitivity to interest rates

Interest rates have some way to go before they take over from risk aversion as the key driver of currency markets but as noted in my previous post, low US interest rates have played negatively for the dollar. As markets have continued to pare back US tightening expectations and US interest rate futures have rallied, interest rate differentials have moved against the dollar. 

The most sensitive currency pair in this respect has been USD/JPY which has been the most highly correlated G10 currency pair with relative interest rate differentials over the past month. It has had a high 0.93 correlation with US/Japan interest rate differentials and a narrowing in the rate differential (mainly due to a rally in US rate futures) has resulted in USD/JPY moving lower and the yen becoming one of the best performing currencies over recent weeks.

Going forward the strong FX / interest rate correlation will leave USD/JPY largely at the whim of US interest rate markets (as Japanese rate futures have hardly moved). Fed officials if anything, are adding to the pressure on the dollar as they continue to highlight that US interest rates will not go up quickly. San Francisco Fed President Yellen was the latest official to do so, warning that the prospects for a “tepid” recovery could fuel inflation risks on the downside.

This echoes the sentiments of other Fed officials over recent weeks and suggests that the Fed wants to prevent the market pricing in a premature reversal in US monetary policy.   It looks increasingly likely that the Fed will maintain interest rates at current levels throughout 2010 given the massive amount of excess capacity and benign inflation outlook, suggesting that interest rate differentials will play negatively for the dollar for several months to come.

As for the yen its path will not only depend on relative interest rates but also on the policies of the new DPJ led government. If Japanese press speculation proves correct the new Finance Minister may favour a stronger yen which will benefit domestic consumers rather than a weaker yen that would benefit exporters. Against this background, markets will largely ignore comments by outgoing Finance Minister Yosano who said that further yen strength would be detrimental for exporters.

The market certainly believes that the yen will strengthen further as reflected by the sharp increase in speculative positioning over recent weeks; net CFTC IMM long yen positions have reached their highest since 10 February 2009. Although USD/JPY has pushed higher since it’s low around 90.21 the upside is likely to be limited against this background and a re-test and likely break back below the key 90.00 psychological level is likely soon.

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