Two-way FX risk returns

It appears that there is a bit of a sea change taking place in currency markets. Since early June the trend in currency markets would have looked like a one way bet to most casual observers. For instance, the USD index was declining fairly steadily and predictability as US growth worries intensified and markets anticipated a resumption of quantitative easing by the Fed. This changed quite dramatically over recent days, with a significant degree of two-way risk re-entering the market as the USD shook off worries about Fed quantitative easing and instead rallied in the wake of higher risk aversion.

The introduction of two-way risk into the market will cause a rethink of the increasingly fashionable view that the USD was about to embark on a renewed negative trend. This change in market perspective has coincided with renewed concerns about European sovereign risks, even as European growth has come in much stronger than expected over Q2. Other currencies have also lost ground against the USD more recently, with the notable exception of the JPY which remains close to the psychological level of 85.00.

Until recently the move in FX markets since early June contrasted with my view that Q3 would be a period of uncertainty and volatility. Improved risk appetite reflected a decline in uncertainty but whilst I now believe that Q3 will see less of an increase in risk aversion than previously anticipated, my core views remain unchanged. I see the USD resuming an appreciation trend against the EUR and funding currencies (JPY and CHF) whilst weakening against higher yielding risk currencies (AUD, NZD and CAD) over the medium term.

Although FX markets will likely gyrate between the influences of risk aversion on the one hand and growth/interest rates on the other, risk is likely to take the upper hand over the coming weeks. The influence of risk aversion has jumped sharply over the last few weeks for almost all currencies. As risk appetite was improving as it has done for much of the period since early June, it played negatively for the USD but the recent increase in risk aversion – brought about by renewed growth concerns, sovereign worries in the eurozone, with Ireland in particular coming under scrutiny – has managed to reverse this trend. The one-way bet for investors now appears to be over.

Only time will tell if the EUR’s recent bull run has come to an end but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that plenty of good news has now been priced in and that further upside will be much more difficult to achieve. Even the recently strong growth data in the eurozone has thrown up potential problems including growing divergence as well as the potential for a slowdown over coming quarters. Further strengthening of the EUR will be a particular problem for eurozone growth, especially for exporting countries such as Germany. In any case, even the recent drop in the EUR leaves the currency at an overvalued level and susceptible to further falls. Over the coming weeks a period of consolidation is likely, with the EUR set to take a weaker tone.

The JPY in contrast has shown little sign of weakening and continues to flirt with the key psychological level of 85.00 much to the detriment of the Japanese economy, leading to growing frustration from Japanese officials. Much weaker than expected Q2 GDP data has given even more reason to engineer a weaker JPY but as yet the only intervention has come verbally and even this has not been particularly strong. In the absence of FX intervention, the Japanese authorities may be forced to consider other options such as increasing outright JGB purchases.

Like the EUR and JPY, GBP will find it tough to extend gains against the USD especially given that the doves at the Bank of England will likely remain in the ascendancy as growth moderates. GBP is also less undervalued than it was just a few weeks back suggesting that the argument for GBP strength has weakened. Nonetheless, GBP is likely to outperform against a generally weaker EUR ending 2010 around 0.78.

Similarly, CHF will likely maintain its strength against the EUR in the short term but unlike GBP this will likely give way to weakness and a gradual move higher in EUR/CHF to around 1.37 by year end. An eventual improvement in risk appetite and some relative economic underperformance will undermine the case for holding CHF.

Scandinavian currencies are likely to struggle in the short term due to market nervousness about a US double dip in an environment of elevated risk aversion. Interest rates will also play an important role in driving NOK and SEK as will be the case for most currencies eventually. Divergence in rate views for Norway and Sweden suggests holding a short SEK long NOK position. Overall, with two-way risk now much more evident as many investors return from their summer break the FX market will look far less predictable than it did before they left.

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