The loss of a great forecaster

Forecasters around the world will mourn the loss of one of their finest following the death of Paul the Octopus at the age of 2 ½ (apparently an average age for Octopi). Although Paul had various threats to his life and insults to his mother’s honour he passed away from natural causes. Many forecasters envious of Paul’s record will look now a successor being groomed to take his place. Markets could do with Paul’s abilities in trying to ascertain the magnitude of Fed quantitative easing (QE) to be announced on 3 November. Conflicting comments from the Fed’s Hoenig (hawkish) and Dudley (dovish) yesterday will keep the market’s guessing.

Interestingly US bond yields are backing up and although yields elsewhere are also rising US yields are beginning to move relatively higher. The FX impact is evident in the growing resilience of the USD. Major Currencies with the highest correlations with bond yield differentials are EUR/USD, AUD/USD, EUR/CAD and USD/CHF although USD/JPY correlations have also been pushing higher. These currencies will ultimately suffer the most if US yields back up further.

Part of the reason for the shift higher in US bond yields is growing speculation that the Fed will take a more measured approach to asset purchases whilst recent data, particularly in the US housing market is showing some stabilisation as revealed in existing home sales data on Monday and a surprise gain in the August US FHFA home price index overnight. September new homes sales will be closely watched today to determine whether this stability is becoming broader based.

US consumer confidence continued this pattern, with the Conference Board index rising to 50.2 in October. Perhaps more interesting was the outcome of the US 5-year TIPS auction at a negative yield (-0.55%). The increased demand for inflation protection hints at QE2 working even before it has been carried out but there is a long way to go on this road and it would be premature to read too much into the auction outcome.

It’s worth noting that UK bond yields bucked the trend versus US bond yields following the release of stronger than expected UK GDP. The data alongside persistently above target inflation will likely dampen expectations that the Bank of England (BoE) will follow the path of the Fed into more QE. Consequently GBP has been a key outperformer. EUR/GBP in particular underwent a sharp reversal and technically the currency pair is showing a negative divergence from the 9-day RSI and the MACD is turning lower from overbought levels. The cross needs to drop below 0.8696 to confirm the technical signals.

Closer to home Australian CPI data this morning played into the hands of those looking for the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to remain on hold next week. Although CPI was slightly softer than expected at 0.6% QoQ in Q3, the AUD took the news badly. The RBA has kept the cash rate on hold at 4.5% since May and at the last meeting there was little indication of an urgency to hike. Nonetheless, recent data plays towards a rate hike next week though the outcome is now a much closer call


G20 Leaves The US Dollar Under Pressure

The G20 meeting of Finance Ministers and Central bankers failed to establish any agreement on clear targets or guidelines. Perhaps the problem of trying to achieve consensus amongst a variety of sometimes conflicting views always pointed to an outcome of watered down compromise but in the event the G20 summit appears to pass the buck to November’s summit of G20 leaders in Seoul where more concrete targets may be outlined.

Officials pledged to “move towards more market determined exchange rate systems” and to “refrain from competitive devaluation of currencies”. What does this actually mean? The answer is not a great deal in terms of practical implications. The first part of the statement is the usual mantra from such meetings and the addition of the latter part will do little to stop central banks, especially in Asia from continuing to intervene given that no central bank is actually devaluing their currency but rather preventing their currencies from strengthening too rapidly.

The communiqué highlighted the need for advanced economies being “vigilant against excess volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates”, but once again this is the mantra found in the repertoire of central bankers over past years and is unlikely to have the desired effect of reducing the “excessive volatility in capital flows facing some emerging countries”. In other words many emerging countries will continue to have an open door to impose limited restrictions on “hot money” flows.

Although the language on currencies was stronger than in previous summits it arguably changes very little in terms of the behaviour of central banks and governments with respect to currencies. The communiqué is wide open to varying interpretations by countries and is unlikely to prevent the ongoing trend of USD depreciation and emerging market country FX appreciation and interventions from continuing over coming weeks.

The onus has clearly shifted to the November summit of G20 leaders but once again it seems unlikely that substantial agreements will be found. In the interim the November 3 Fed FOMC meeting will be the next major focus and if the Fed embarks on renewed asset purchases as widely expected FX tensions will remain in place for some time yet.

So whilst a “currency war” was always unlikely “skirmishes” will continue. In the meantime the USD is set to remain under pressure although it’s worth noting that speculative positioning has recorded a reduction in net aggregate USD short positions over the last couple of weeks, suggesting that some of the USD selling pressure may have abated. Whether this reflected caution ahead of the G20 meeting (as the data predates the G20 meeting) or indicated the USD having priced in a lot of quantitative easing (QE2) expectations already, is debatable.

The path of least resistance to USD weakness remains via major currencies including AUD, CAD and NZD. Officials in Europe are also showing little resistance to EUR strength despite the premature tightening in financial conditions and negative impact on growth that it entails. Scandinavian currencies such as SEK and NOK have also posted strong gains against the USD and will likely continue to show further outperformance.

The JPY has been the best performing major currency this year followed not far behind by the CHF despite the FX interventions of the authorities in Japan and Switzerland. Although USD/JPY is fast approaching the 80.00 line in the sand level expected to result in fresh FX intervention by the Japanese authorities, the path of the JPY remains upwards. Japan is unlikely to go away from the G20 meeting with any change in policy path as indicated by officials following the weekend deliberations.

Temporary relief for US Dollar

Downbeat US economic news in the form of a widening US trade deficit, increase in jobless claims and bigger than expected increase in top line PPI inflation contrasted with upbeat earnings from Google. Google shares surged over 9% in after hours trading but US data tarnished the risk on mood of markets, leaving commodity prices and equities lower and the USD firmer. Higher US Treasury yields, especially in the longer end following a poor 30 year auction, helped the USD to push higher.

The USD’s trend is undoubtedly lower but profit taking may be the order of the day ahead of a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke on monetary policy later today and the release of the highly anticipated US Treasury Report in which China may be named as a currency manipulator. A speech by the Minneapolis Fed’s Kocherlatoka (non voter) this morning sounded downbeat, even suggesting that “Fed asset purchases may have a muted effect”. Despite such comments the Fed appears likely to embark on QE2 at its 3 November meeting.

Today is also a key data for US data releases with September data on US retail sales, and CPI and October data on Michigan confidence and Empire manufacturing scheduled for release. Retail sales are likely to look reasonable, with headline sales expected to rise 0.5% and ex-autos sales expected up 0.4%. The gauges of both manufacturing and consumer confidence are also likely to show some recovery whilst inflation pressures will remain benign. Given the uncertainty about the magnitude of QE the Fed will undertake in November, the CPI data will have added importance.

The US trade will likely have resulted in an intensification of expectations that China will be labelled as a currency manipulator in the US Treasury report later today. The August trade deficit with China widened $28.04 billion, the largest on record. At the least it will give further ammunition to the US Congress who are spoiling for a fight ahead of mid-term congressional elections, whilst heightening tensions ahead of the November G20 meeting.

Indeed currency frictions continue to increase although “currency war” seems to be an extreme label for it. Nonetheless, Singapore’s move yesterday to widen the SGD band highlighted the pressure that many central banks in the region are coming under to combat local currency strength. Singapore’s move may be a monetary tightening but it is also a tacit recognition of the costs of intervening to weaken or at least limit the strength of currencies in the region. To have maintained the previous band would have required ongoing and aggressive FX intervention which has its own costs in terms of sterilization.

This problem will remain as long as the USD remains weak and this in turn will depend on US QE policy and bond yields. A lot of negativity is priced into the USD and market positioning has become quite extreme suggesting that it will not all be a downhill bet for the currency. Many currencies breached or came close to testing key psychological and technical levels yesterday, with EUR/USD breaching 1.4000, GBP/USD breaking 1.6000, USD/CAD breaking below parity and AUD/USD coming close to testing parity. Some reversal is likely today, but any relief for the USD is likely to prove temporary.

Contrasting Stance

Despite some recent Fed speakers putting doubts into the minds of the many now looking for the Fed to embark on QE2 in November, the minutes of the 21 September FOMC meeting gave the green light to the commencement of asset purchases next month. Although there is clearly no unanimity within the FOMC the majority favour further easing. Incremental data dependent asset purchases will be the most likely path.

The minutes leave the USD vulnerable to further declines but extreme short USD positioning suggest that there is plenty of risk of short covering and more likely we are probably set for a period of consolidation over coming weeks before the USD resumes its decline.

Unlike the Fed, BoJ and BoE, which remain in easing mode the ECB is already veering towards an exit strategy, albeit one that is unlikely to take effect for some time. Hawkish comments by the ECB’s Weber overnight managed to give a lift to the EUR in the wake of a further widening in interest rate differentials between the eurozone and US. Indeed, interest rate differentials (2nd contract futures) are at the widest since Feb 2009, a factor that is providing plenty of underlying support for the EUR.

Further out the follow through on the EUR will depend on whether markets believe Weber’s stance is credible. Germany’s economy is doing well but it is highly likely that Southern European officials would oppose any premature tightening in policy given the parlous state of their economies. The stronger EUR will also do some damage to growth, with its recent appreciation acting as a de facto monetary tightening.

Despite the positive influence of Weber’s comments short-term technical indicators show that the trend in EUR is vulnerable, with clear signs of negative divergence as the spot rate is still trending higher whilst the relative strength indices (RSI) are trending lower. Moreover, EUR speculative positioning is at its highest in a year, albeit still well of its all time highs. Speculators may be reluctant to build on longs in the near term. A clean and sustained break above EUR/USD 1.4000 level still looks like a stretch too far though any downside is likely to be limited to strong support around 1.3895.

Unlike the perception that the ECB is highly unlikely to follow the Fed in a path of QE2 the policy stance of the BoE is far more uncertain, a fact that continues to weigh on GBP, especially against the EUR. Recent data in the UK has played into the hands of the doves, with housing market activity and prices coming under renewed pressure, retail sales surveys revealing some deterioration and consumer confidence as revealed in the Nationwide survey overnight, weakening further.

BoE MPC member Miles summarized the situation by highlighting that the UK faces “some big risks” and even hinted that the BoE may “come to use QE”. UK jobs data today is unlikely to give any support to sentiment for GBP although as per its recent trend GBP is likely to remain resilient against the USD whilst remaining under pressure against the EUR, with a move to resistance around EUR/GBP 0.8946 on the cards in the short-term

No FX co-operation

Despite all the jawboning ahead of the IMF / World Bank meetings over the weekend the meeting ended with little agreement on how deal to with the prospects of a “currency war”. US officials continued to sling mud at China for not allowing its currency, the CNY, to appreciate quickly enough whilst China blamed the US for destabilizing emerging economies by flooding them with liquidity due to the Fed’s ultra loose monetary policy stance. Chinese trade data on Wednesday my throw more fuel on to the fire given another strong surplus expected, lending support to those in the US Congress who want to label China as a “currency manipulator”.

Although the IMF communiqué mentioned countries working co-operatively” on currencies there were no details on how such cooperation would take place. The scene is now set for plenty of friction and potential volatility ahead of the November G20 meeting in Seoul. Although many central banks are worrying about USD weakness when was the last time US Treasury Secretary Geithner talked about a strong USD? US officials are probably happy to see the USD falling and are unlikely to support any measure to arrest its decline unless the drop in the USD turns into a rout. In contrast, the strengthening EUR over recent weeks equates to around 50bps of monetary tightening, a fact that could put unwanted strain on Europe’s growth trajectory, especially in the periphery.

The outcome of the IMF meeting leaves things much as they left off at the end of last week. In other words there is little to stand in the way of further USD weakness apart from the fact that the market is already extremely short USDs. Indeed the latest CFTC IMM data revealed that aggregate net USD positioning came within a whisker of its all time low, with net positions at -241.2k contracts (USD -30 billion), the lowest USD positioning since November 2007. Interestingly and inconsistent with the sharp rise in the EUR, positioning in this currency remains well below its all time highs, supporting the view that rather than speculative investors it is central banks that are pushing the EUR higher.

The US jobs report at the end of last week proved disappointing, with total September payrolls dropping by 95k despite a 64k increase in private payrolls. The data will act to reinforce expectations that the Fed will begin a program of further asset purchases or quantitative easing (QE2) at its November meeting. Data and events this week will give further clues, especially the Fed FOMC minutes tomorrow and speeches from Fed Chairman Bernanke on Thursday and Friday as well as various other Fed speakers on tap.

Recent speeches by Fed officials have highlighted growing support for QE although some have tried to temper expectations. Questions about the timing and size of any new programme, as well as how it will be communicated remain unanswered. Although November seems likely for the Fed to start QE the Fed’s Bullard suggested that the Fed may wait until December. The minutes will be scrutinized for clues on these topics. The Fed is likely to embark on incremental asset purchases with the overall size being data dependent and the USD set to remain under pressure while this happens.

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