Speculative data points to USD struggle

The latest CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data shows just how massive the shift in speculative USD positioning has been over recent weeks.  Net aggregate USD short positions (vs. EUR, JPY, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD, CHF) have shifted from -172k at the beginning of December to -11k in the week ending Dec 22nd.   This corresponds with the sharp rally in the USD versus various currencies over the same period.  

The net speculative USD position is now at its highest since May 2009 and at this pace of improvement the market will be net long USD very quickly.  However, the data also suggests that there should be a degree of cautiousness in buying the USD from here.  The USD may simply be repeating the pattern seen in 2006 and 2007 when the USD strengthened into year end only to drop sharply in the weeks after. 

If the rally in the USD has largely been due to short covering into year end then this source of support for the USD is looking exhausted. Indeed it is difficult to argue that interest rate moves have helped the USD as correlations are still low between the USD index and US rate futures. The shift in USD speculative positioning may explain the inability of the USD to make much further headway over recent days and suggests difficulty for the USD in the days ahead, with the USD index likely to struggle to get above last week’s high o 78.449.


FX Prospects for 2010

There can be no doubt that for the most part 2009 has been a year for risk trades, not withstanding the sell off into year end. The policy successes in preventing a systemic crisis and the massive flood of USD liquidity injected globally kept the USD under pressure for most of the year and the currency became a victim of this success. Risk appetite is likely to improve only gradually over coming months given the still significant obstacles to recovery in the months ahead.  This will coincide with the declining influence of risk on FX markets. 

2010 will not be as straightforward and whilst risk will dominate early in the year interest rate differentials will gain influence in driving currencies as the year progresses. The problem for the USD is that market expectations for the timing of the beginning of US interest rate hikes is likely to prove premature as the Fed is set to hold off until at least late 2010/early 2011 before raising interest rates. The liquidity tap will stay open for some time, and risk trades will still find further support at least in the early part of 2010, whilst the USD will come under renewed pressure.    

The ECB will be much quicker in closing its liquidity tap than the Fed and arguably an earlier reduction in credit easing and interest rate hikes compared to the Fed would favour a stronger EUR.  However, the EUR is already very overvalued and a relatively aggressive ECB policy is unwarranted. Consequently rather than benefiting from more favourable relative interest rate expectations, the EUR could be punished and the EUR is set to decline over much of 2010 following a brief rally in Q1 2010, with EUR/USD set to fall over the year. 

Japan is moving in the opposite direction to the ECB.  FX intervention is firmly on the table though the risk is limited unless USD/JPY drops back to around 85.00. Even at current levels the JPY is overvalued but for it to resume weakness it will need to regain the role of funding currency of choice, a title that the USD has assumed. Efforts by the BoJ to combat deflation will likely help result in fuelling some depreciation of the JPY and it is likely to be the worst performing major currency over 2010, with a move back up to around USD/JPY in prospect.

The issue of global rebalancing will need to involve currencies but the currency adjustments necessary will not be forthcoming in 2010.  USD weakness early in the year will be mostly exhibited against freely floating major currencies which will bear the brunt of USD weakness.  However, the bulk of adjustment is needed in Asian currencies and there is little sign that central banks in the region will allow a rapid appreciation.  China holds the key and a gradual appreciation in the CNY over 2010 suggests little incentive to allow other Asian currencies to appreciate strongly. 

So in many ways 2010 will be one of two halves for currency markets and this has the potential to reignite some volatility in FX markets.  High beta risk trades including the AUD, NZD, NOK and many emerging currencies will see further upside in H1 as the USD falls further.  Gains in risk currencies will look even more impressive when played against the JPY and/or CHF than vs. USD given that they will succumb to growing pressure in the months ahead as their usage as funding currencies increases.

Ongoing rate hikes in Australia and Norway and the likely beginning of the process to raise rates in New Zealand early next year will mean that these currencies will also have the additional support of yield to drive them higher unlike the JPY.  There is a limit to most things however, and eventually the USD will recover some of its lost ground against risk currencies, as it undergoes a cyclical recovery over H2 2010.

US Dollar Déjà vu

The USD is in a win-win situation at present.  Good economic data in the US helps to advance expectations of US monetary tightening, lending the USD support, regardless of the positive impact on risk appetite.  Similarly, bad economic news is also supporting the USD as it leads to higher risk aversion.  Either way the USD has surged over the past few weeks, appreciating by close to 5% since its low on 25 November. 

There was a similar but directionally opposite move in the USD last year taking place from almost the same time.  The USD index hit a high around 21 November 2008 but fell by over 10% in just less than a month.  If the same pattern is repeated this year the USD index has much further to strengthen although it is worth noting that the drop in the USD last year reversed practically to this day a year ago, with the USD subsequently rising by close to 13% in the next few months. 

Given that the move at the end of last year may not be the best comparison given the distortions due to the crisis and massive repatriation to the US in Q1 2009 it’s worth looking at what happened in 2006 and 2007 for a better comparison.   From the beginning of December 2006 to 11 January 2007 the USD strengthened by 3.5% but then dropped by around 4.5% within the next 3 months.  Similarly, the USD strengthened by close to 4% from the end of November 2007 to 20 December 2007.  However, the USD dropped by over 8% in the three months after.  So what I am saying is that it is way too early to suggest that the USD rebound will be sustained over coming months and judging by past evidence all its doing is proving better levels to sell for a subsequent decline over Q1 2010.   

Is the USD really in a win-win situation? Well, the more plausible explanation is perhaps a bit more simplistic.  It’s year end and the market is squaring up, with FX moves being exaggerated by thinning liquidity.  There is some support to this theory from the CFTC Commitment of Traders IMM data which revealed a sharp reduction in net aggregate USD short positions in the latest week, with a further sharp reduction in net short positions expected in next week’s release. 

Whilst it is too early to buck the trend yet, going into early next I look for a reversal of the recent appreciation in the USD against the background of improving risk appetite and US interest rates that are unlikely to go for a long while yet.

Dollar on top as central banks deliberate

There has been a veritable feast of central bank activity and decisions with most attention having been on the Fed’s decision.  In the event the FOMC meeting delivered no surprises in its decision and statement.  Basically the Fed acknowledged the recent improvement in economic activity but continued to see inflation as subdued and maintained that policy rates will remain low for an “extended period”.  The Fed also noted that most liquidity facilities were on track to expire on 1 February suggesting that they remain on track to withdraw liquidity.  

There was similarly no surprise in the Riksbank’s decision in Sweden to leave interest rates unchanged, with the Bank reiterating that it would maintain this stance through the autumn of 2010.  The SEK has been stung by outflows due to annual payments of premiums to mutual funds by the Pension Authority but the impact of this has now largely ended leaving the currency in better position.  Norway’s Norges Bank unexpectedly raised interest rates, for a second time, increasing its deposit rate by 25bps to 1.75%, with the surprise evident in the rally in NOK following the decision.   The other central bank to surprise but in the opposite direction was the Czech central bank which cut interest rates by 25bps.  

In contrast to the Norges Bank’s hawkish surprise the RBA has helped to toned down expectations for further rate hikes in Australia, with Deputy Governor Battellino suggesting that monetary policy was back in a “normal range” in contrast to the perception that policy was still very accommodative.   Weaker than expected Q3 GDP (0.2% QoQ versus forecasts of a 0.4% QoQ rise) data fed into the dovish tone of interest rate markets fuelling a further scaling back of rate hike expectations, casting doubt on a move at the February 2010 RBA meeting and pushing the AUD lower in the process.  Against this background AUD continues to look vulnerable in the short term, especially under the weight of year end profit taking and the resurgent USD.  

There was also some surprise in the amount of lending by the ECB, with the Bank lending EUR 96.9 bn in third and final tender of 1-year cash despite the cost of the loan being indexed to the refi rate over the term of the loan rather than being fixed at 1%.  There was also a sharp decline in the number of banks bidding compared to earlier 1-year auctions but at a much higher average bid.  This implies that some banks in Europe remain highly dependent on ECB funding despite the improvement in market conditions.   The EUR continues to struggle and its precipitous drop has shown little sign of reversing, with the currency set for a soft end to the year.  A break below technical support around 1.4407 opens the door to a fall to around 1.4290.   

The USD is set to retain its firmer tone in the near term though we would caution at reading its recent rally as marking a broader shift in sentiment.  The move in large part can be attributed to position adjustment into year end and is being particularly felt by those currencies that have gained the most in recent months.  Hence, the softer tone to Asian currencies and commodity currencies which appear to be bearing the brunt of the rebound in the USD.   Going into next year USD pressure is set to resume but for now the USD is set to remain on top, with the USD index on track to break above 78.000.

What’s driving FX – Interest rates or risk?

The November US retail sales report has really set the cat amongst the pigeons. For so long we have become accustomed to judging the move in the USD based on daily gyrations in risk aversion. Well, that may all be about to change. There was an inkling that all did not look right following the release of the November jobs report which unsurprisingly helped to boost risk appetite but surprisingly boosted the USD too.

It was easy to dismiss the USD reaction to year end position adjustment, markets getting caught short USDs etc. What’s more the shift in interest rate expectations following the jobs report in which markets began to price in an earlier rate hike in the US was quickly reversed in the wake of Fed Chairman Bernanke’s speech highlighting risks to the economy and reiterating the Fed’s “extended period” stance.

However, it all has happened again following the release of the November retail sales data, which if you missed it, came in stronger than expected alongside a similarly better than forecast reading for December Michigan confidence. The USD reaction was to register a broad based rally as markets once again moved to believe that the “extended period” may not be so extended after all.

Interest rates will become increasingly important in driving currencies over the course of the next few months but if anyone thinks that the Fed will shift its stance at this week’s FOMC meeting, they are likely to be off the mark. No doubt the Fed will note the recent improvement in economic data but this is highly unlikely to result in a change in the overall stance towards policy.

Further improvements in US data this week including industrial production, housing starts, Philly Fed and Empire manufacturing may lead markets to doubt this but the Fed calls the shots and a potentially dovish statement may act to restrain the USD this week. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to rule out the influence of risk appetite on currencies just yet and with a generally positive slate of data expected, firmer risk appetite will similarly act as a cap on the USD this week.

Other than the US events there is plenty of other potentially market moving data to digest this week. More central banks meet this week including the Riksbank, Norges Bank and Bank of Japan. No change is expected from all three but whilst the Riksbank is set to maintain a dovish stance the Norges Bank meeting is a closer call. So soon after the emergency BoJ meeting, a shift in policy appears unlikely but the pressure to increase Rinban (outright JGB buying) operations could throw up some surprises for markets.

Europe also has its fair share of releases this week including the two biggest data for markets out of the eurozone, namely, the German ZEW and IFO surveys as well as the flash December PMI readings. The biggest risk is for the ZEW survey which could suffer proportionately more in the wake of recent sovereign concerns in the Eurozone. Sovereign names may still lurk to protect the downside on EUR/USD and if the USD finds it tougher going as noted above, the EUR may be able to claw back some of its recent losses.

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