Split personality

Markets are exhibiting a Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with a clear case of split personality. Intensifying risk aversion initially provoked USD and JPY strength, with most crosses against these currencies under pressure. Both USD/JPY and EUR/JPY breezed through psychological and technical barriers, with the latter hitting a nine-year low. However, this reversed abruptly in the wake of extremely poor US existing home sales, which plunged 27.2% in July, alongside downward revisions to prior months, a much bigger drop than forecast.

Obviously double-dip fears have increased but how realistic are such fears? Whilst much of the drop in home sales can be attributed to the expiry of tax credits, investors can be forgiven for thinking that renewed housing market weakness may lead the way in fuelling a more generalized US economic downdraft. The slow pace of jobs market improvement highlights that the risks to the consumer are still significant, whilst tight credit and weaker equities, suggests that wealth and income effects remain unsupportive.

FX markets will need to determine whether to buy USDs on higher risk aversion or sell USDs on signs of weaker growth and potential quantitative easing. I suspect the former, with the USD likely to remain firm against most risk currencies. The only positive thing to note in relation to the rise in risk aversion is that it is taking place in an orderly manner, with markets not panicking (yet).

European data in the form of June industrial new orders delivered a pleasant surprise, up 2.5%, but sentiment for European markets was delivered a blow from the downgrade of Ireland’s credit rating to AA- from AA which took place after the close. The data suggests that the momentum of European growth in Q3 may not be as soft as initially feared following the robust Q2 GDP outcome.

Japan has rather more to worry about on the growth front, especially given the weaker starting point as revealed in recently soft Q2 GDP data. Japan revealed a wider than expected trade surplus in July but this was caused by a bigger drop in exports than imports, adding to signs of softening domestic activity. The strength of the JPY is clearly making the job of officials harder but so far there has been no sign of imminent official FX action.

Japan’s finance minister Noda highlighted that recent FX moves have been “one sided” and that “appropriate action will be taken when necessary”. The sharp move in JPY crosses resulted in a jump in JPY volatility, a factor that will result in a greater probability of actual FX intervention but the prospects of intervention are likely to remain limited unless the move in the JPY accelerates. USD/JPY hit a low of 83.60 overnight but has recovered some lost ground, with 83.50 seen as the next key support level. JPY crosses may see some support from market wariness on possible BoJ JPY action, but the overall bias remains downwards versus JPY.

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