A Better Start To The Week

The start of this week looks somewhat better compared to the end of last week. Although nervousness will remain amidst thinning liquidity, news that the UAE central bank “stands behind” local and foreign banks and will lend, albeit at a rate of 0.5% above the 3-month benchmark rate, will reassure investors that banks have sufficient liquidity in the wake of any losses suffered due to the Dubai Holdings debacle. This will see some improvement in risk appetite.

The news will unlikely prevent stock markets in the UAE, which open today following Eid holidays, from sliding, however. Attention will turn to the suspended Sukuk bonds and also to the extent of support (and any strings attached) provided by Abu Dhabi to Dubai. The support from the central bank will help markets outside of the UAE regain a little composure and limit demand for safe haven assets but the rally may prove limited until there is greater transparency.

Nonetheless, even if there is some relief at the beginning of this week due to some containment of the problems in Dubai nerves are likely to fray going into the end of the year, with the multi-month trend of improving risk appetite faltering. There have been plenty of reasons for markets to worry lately including concerns about the shape of economic recovery in the months to come as well as renewed banking sector concerns and these will not be allayed quickly.

Data this week in the US is unlikely to help to dampen growth concerns. The main event is the US November jobs report and although the magnitude of job losses is set to decrease the unemployment rate is set to remain stubbornly high around 10.2%. In addition to an expected decline in the November ISM manufacturing index suggests that growth concerns will intensify rather than lessen. This in turn highlights that any improvement in risk appetite this week will prove limited.

The other key events this week include interest rate decisions in Europe and Australia. Although the ECB is widely expected to leave rates on hold on Thursday, there will be plenty of attention on any details of the Bank’s “gradual” exit strategy. Whether the ECB offers new loans to banks at a variable interest relative to the current fixed rate will be taken as an important sign on the path of liquidity withdrawal. We believe the Bank will stick with a fixed rate. The RBA will take a step further and announce a 25bps interest rate hike tomorrow.

FX markets are likely to be buffeted by the gyrations in risk appetite but at least at the beginning of the week the USD is set to give up its recent gains, with EUR/USD likely to try and hold above 1.5000 as markets digest the better news coming from the UAE. The JPY will be a particular focus given the growing attention of the authorities in Japan. Finance Minister Fujii is quoted in the Japanese press that they won’t intervene in the FX market, which appears to give the green light to further JPY strength though I suspect that if USD/JPY drops below 85.00 again there will plenty of FX intervention speculation and in any case these comments have since been denied.

Dubai’s aftermath

Dubai’s bolt out of the blue is hitting markets globally, with the aftershock made worse by the thin liquidity conditions in the wake of the US Thanksgiving holiday and Eid holidays in the Middle East.  The sell off followed news by government owned Dubai Holdings of a six month debt freeze.  Estimates of exposure to Dubai vary considerably, with European banks estimated to have around $40 billion in exposure though what part of this is at risk is another question. 

The lack of information surrounding the Dubai announcement made matters worse.  The aftermath is likely to continue to be felt over the short term, with further selling of risk assets likely.  Indeed, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding international exposure to Dubai or what risk there is to this exposure and until there is further clarity stocks look likely to face another drubbing.

The most sensitive currencies with risk aversion over the past month have been the JPY, and USD index, which benefit from rising risk aversion whilst on the other side of the coin, most Asian currencies especially the THB and KRW as well as the ZAR, and AUD look vulnerable to any rise in risk aversion.  JPY crosses look to be under most pressure, with the likes of AUD/JPY dropping sharply and these currencies are likely to drop further amidst rising risk aversion. 

The rise in the JPY has been particularly dramatic and has prompted a wave of comments from Japanese officials attempting to talk the JPY lower including comments by Finance Minister Fujii that he “will contact US and Europe on currencies if needed”.  So far, these comments have had little effect, with USD/JPY falling briefly through the key psychological level of 85.00, marking a major rally in the JPY from a high of 89.19 at the beginning of the week.  Unless markets believe there is a real threat of FX intervention by Japan the official comments will continue to be ignored.

It’s not all about risk aversion for the JPY, with interest rate differential playing a key role in the downward move in USD/JPY over recent weeks.  USD/JPY has had a high 0.79 correlation with interest rate differentials over the past month.  The US / Japan rate differential narrowed sharply (ie lower US rate premium to Japan) to just around 4.5bps from around 100bps at the beginning of August.  With both interest rate differentials and risk aversion playing for a stronger JPY the strong JPY bias is set to continue over the short term.

Is this the beginning of a new rout in global markets?  It is more likely another bump on the road to recovery, with the impact all the larger due to the surprise factor of Duba’s announcement as it was widely thought that Dubai was on the road to recovery.  The fact that the news took place on a US holiday made matters worse whilst the weight of long risk trades suggests an exaggerated fall out over the short term.

Buffer for risk trades

Firmer data, most recently in the form of the stronger than expected US consumer confidence and dovish Fed comments as reiterated in the Fed FOMC minutes will provide a buffer for risk trades, supporting the USDs role as the prime funding currency over coming weeks.  Nonetheless, any improvement in sentiment will have to push against the weight of position adjustment into year-end as investors book profits on risk trades.  The net effect could be an increase in volatility especially in thinning liquidity expected in the wake of holidays in Japan and the Thanksgiving holiday in the US.

This could make it difficult for many asset markets to sustain key psychological and technical levels.  Whether the S&P 500 can hold gains above 1100 could prove significant as could EUR/USD’s ability to hold onto gains above 1.50.  The expiry of last week’s EUR/USD 1.48/1.51 option may provoke a move out of its range but there seems to be little appetite for a sustained break above the 23rd October high around 1.5061.  Even so, an upside bias is more likely given the likely softer tone to the USD. EUR/USD looks well supported around 1.4865.

Position adjustment towards the end of the year has been particularly evident in FX markets.  For instance, the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders’ data revealed that speculative investors have sharply reduced net long EUR positions into last week whilst there was a significant degree of short covering of GBP positions.  It is worth noting however, that aggregate USD net short speculative positions actually increased, largely due to a sharp jump in net JPY positioning, suggesting that overall sentiment for the USD remains very negative.

It is difficult to see a strong reversal in USD sentiment into year-end and the Fed’s commitment to maintaining interest rates at a low-level for an “extended period” taken together with hints of extending asset purchase programmes suggests little support to the USD over the short-term unless there is a more significant increase in risk aversion and or profit taking/book closing into year-end.  It seems that the impact of improved risk appetite is winning for now, giving no respite to the USD.

Contrasting the ECB with the Fed

Whether its year end book closing/profit taking and/or renewed doubts about the shape of recovery, asset markets have turned south recently.  Investor mood appears to be souring as risk aversion creeps back into the market psyche.  A string of disappointing US data releases over the last week including core retail sales, Empire manufacturing, industrial production, and housing starts, contributed to the reduced appetite for risk, resulting in a soft finish to the week for equity markets and a firmer USD.

Things are likely to take a turn for the better this week, however. Data will shed a little more light on the pace and magnitude of economic recovery and could result in some improvement in appetite for risk trades.  Despite an expected downward revision to US Q3 GDP, forward looking data on home sales, durable goods orders and personal income and spending as well as consumer confidence are likely to reveal increases.  In the Eurozone, data economic releases will paint a similar picture, including an expected increase in the closely watched barometer of business confidence, the German IFO survey. 

At the least economic data will remove some, but by no means all doubts about a relapse in the recovery process.  There is no doubting the veracity of the recovery in equity and commodity prices, despite doubts about its sustainability. Central banks may not react uniformly to this and the policy impact could vary significantly.  Already it appears that the ECB is moving more quickly towards an exit strategy compared to the Fed.  Although ECB President Trichet highlighted that the crisis is far from over at the end of last week, the Bank announced tougher standards for asset backed securities used as collateral, indicating that the need to provide emergency support to banks is much lower than it was. 

Clearly the ECB wants to avoid letting the market become over dependent on the central bank and will look to implement measures to this aim.  In contrast, the Fed is showing little sign of beginning this process and at least one member of the FOMC, namely St. Louis Fed President Bullard, was quoted over the weekend advocating that the Fed keep its MBS buying programme beyond its scheduled close in March. Evidence of the contrasting stance is also reflected in the fact that the Fed’s balance sheet is expanding once again whilst the ECB’s is contracting.  As a result of firmer data and comments by Bullard the USD is set to go into the week under renewed pressure, albeit within well defined ranges.

When things are just not right

One knows when things aren’t quite right when a football team wins a game by using a hand to help score a goal rather than a foot.  In this case it was French striker Thierry Henry who helped France to qualify for the world cup at the expense of Ireland.  To English soccer fans this looks like decidedly similar situation to the “hand of god” goal scored by Diego Maradona during the 1986 World Cup. 

Similarly things don’t look quite right with markets at present and what began as a loss of momentum turned into a bit of a rout for US (Thursday) and Asian stocks (Friday).  In turn risk appetite has taken a turn for the worse whilst the USD is on a firmer footing.  Profit taking or simply repatriation at year end may explain some of the market moves but doubts about the pace and magnitude of economic recovery are playing a key role.

Ireland has called for a replay of the soccer game but markets may not get such an opportunity as sentiment sours into year end.  Markets chose to ignore some relatively positive news in the form a  stronger than forecast increase in the Philly Fed manufacturing survey and the improving trend in US jobless claims leaving little else to support confidence. 

The only event of note today was the Bank of Japan policy decision.   Interest rates were kept unchanged at 0.1%.  Given that official concerns about deflation are intensifying interest rates are unlikely to go up for a long while and we only look for the first rate hike to take place in Q2 2011.  The BoJ may however, be tempted to buy more government bonds in the future if deflation concerns increase further.   USD/JPY was unmoved on the decision, with the currency pair continuing to gyrate around the 89.00 level though higher risk aversion suggests a firmer JPY bias. 

In the short term increased risk aversion will play positively for the USD against most currencies, especially against high beta currencies such as the AUD, NZD and GBP.   Asian currencies will also be on the back foot due to profit taking on the multi-month gains in these currencies.

US rates “low for long”

Risk appetite is failing to show much improvement this week and sharply weaker than forecast US housing data dampened sentiment further following other soft data over recent days including the Empire manufacturing survey, industrial production and retail sales less autos. The data will add to concerns about the pace and magnitude of growth in the months ahead.

A sub-par recovery and benign inflation outlook are the two main reasons why the Fed will not hike rates for a long while yet. This was echoed by St. Louis Fed President Bullard – a voting member of the FOMC – who gave a little more colour on the Fed’s “extended period” statement. He highlighted the probability that US interest rates will not be raised until the first half of 2012.

Bullard noted that following the past two recessions the Fed did not raise rates until two and half to three years after recession ended. This is accurate given that in 2001 the Fed did not begin to hike rates until around 2 ½ years after the end of the recession whilst in 1990-91 rates did not go up until close to 3 years after recession ended. This recession just passed was arguably worse than both of the past two, so why should rates rise any earlier?

One factor that could trigger an earlier rate hike is the risks from the massive global liquidity fuelled carry trade fuelled by Fed policy. Bullard highlighted that the risks of creating an asset bubble from keeping rates “too low for too long” may prompt an earlier tightening. What will be important is that the Fed gets the exit strategy right and the risk that delaying any reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet and asset purchases could turn out to be inflationary which in turn would be negative for the USD and hit confidence in US assets.

The Fed is very likely to adjust the level of quantitative easing well before contemplating raising interest rates. The market is pricing in around 50bps of rate hikes in the next 12 months but even this looks to aggressive and as has been the case of recent months the market is likely to push back the timing of expected rate hikes. The consequences for the USD are negative at least until the market becomes more aggressive in pricing in US interest rate hikes or believes the Fed is serious about its exit strategy.

FX position squaring

It is becoming apparent that as the end of the year approaches market players are squaring FX positions rather than putting new risk on. The USD has failed to show any sign of sustaining a recovery over recent weeks but may be benefiting from short covering into year end, with the USD index pivoting around the 75.00 level. Supportive comments from US officials and international calls for the US to act to prevent the currency from being debased may also be helping on the margin.

Nonetheless, the USD’s outlook is still mired by a combination of both cyclical and structural concerns and it will fail to recover on a sustainable basis until it loses the mantle of preferred funding currency. This is unlikely to happen soon given the repeated commitment by the Fed to keep interest rates low for long as repeated this week by Fed Chairman Bernanke.

USD/JPY continues to gyrate around the 89-90 level and is showing little inclination to move either side though a run of positive economic surprises and the move in interest rate differentials (versus US) suggest that the JPY will trade on the firmer side of 90 over the short term; USD/JPY has been the most highly correlated currency pair with interest rate differentials over the past month. JPY speculative positioning is not particularly onerous at present, suggesting some room for an increase in JPY positioning.

The EUR continues to struggle to make any headway and is likely not being helped by European policy makers’ attempts to talk the USD higher. ECB President Trichet repeated his comments that a strong USD is in the world’s best interest though by now such comments are nothing new. It will need a clear break above 1.5061 in EUR/USD to renew the uptrend in the currency. For now, a reported 1.48-1.51 option expiring on Friday suggests range trading, with EUR/USD looking heavy on the top side.

GBP is set to remain firm despite the slightly dovish November MPC minutes. GBP looks resilient against the EUR against which it has benefited from a favourable move in interest rate differentials as a well as an adjustment in positioning where the market has decreased its GBP short positions and also decreased EUR long positions. EUR/GBP has been leading the way, and like USD/JPY this currency pair has become increasingly correlated with interest rate differentials, which has played positively for GBP. This has helped it to pivot around the 200 day moving average around 0.8871, a level that will prove important to determine further downside potential in EUR/GBP.

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