Although equity markets continue to tread water the appetite for risk looks untarnished. So far into the new-year the winners are commodity / high yield plays as well as emerging market assets. The AUD, NOK, NZD and CAD have been the stars on the major currency front, with only GBP registering losses against the USD so far this year. The move in these currencies has been well supported by resurgent commodity prices; the CRB commodities index is up close to 10% since its low on 9 December.
There is little reason to go against this trend and the USD index is set to continue to lose ground as risk appetite improves further. I highlighted the upside potential in high yield / commodity currencies in a post titled “FX Prospects for 2010” and stick with the view that there is much further upside. I still prefer to play long positions in these currencies versus JPY which I believe will come under growing pressure as the year progresses.
Economic data has also been supportive, especially in Australia, supporting the AUD’s yield advantage. Although comments from the central bank towards the end of last year downplayed expectations of much further tightening, data releases support the case for another rate hike at the 2 February RBA meeting, with a fourth consecutive hike of 25bps to 4.00% likely at the meeting.
There will be some important clues from next week’s jobs data in Australia but judging by the solid gain in November retail sales, which rose 1.4% versus consensus expectations of 0.3%, and 5.9% jump in building approvals, the case for a rate hike has strengthened. AUD/USD will now set its sights on technical resistance around 0.9326.
AUD/USD has the highest sensitivity with relative interest rate differentials – correlation of 0.85 with Australia/US interest rate futures differentials over the past month – and so unsurprisingly the AUD rallied further as markets reacted to the strong retail sales data. I believe Australian interest rates will eventually get back up to 6% – pointing to more upside for AUD/USD as this is more than is priced in by the market.
It is fortunate for the USD that the correlation between the USD index and interest rate expectations remains low but nonetheless the December 15 FOMC minutes may have provided another excuse to sell the currency. The minutes were interpreted as slightly dovish by the market, with many latching on to the comments that some members of the FOMC debated the potential to expand the scale of asset purchases and continuing them beyond the first quarter.