Risk Aversion Creeps Higher

The USD index has dropped by around 17% since June 2010 high and despite a slight bounce this week it is unlikely to mark the beginning of a sustained turnaround. Nonetheless, I would caution about getting carried away with positioning for USD weakness. Whilst an imminent recovery looks unlikely the risk/reward of shorting the USD is becoming increasingly unfavourable.

Until then Federal Reserve comments will be watched closely for clues on policy and there are plenty of Fed speakers this week including a speech by Boston Fed’s Rosengren today and Fed Chairman Bernanke tomorrow. The USD will also gain some direction from jobs data and markets will be able to gauge more clues for Friday’s non-farm payrolls data , with the release of the April ADP employment report today.

The EUR is one currency that has suffered this week. News that Portugal’s caretaker government has reached an agreement with the European Union / International Monetary Fund on a bailout of as much as EUR 78 billion has so far been greeted with a muted response. EUR attention is still very much focussed on the ECB meeting tomorrow and prospects of a hawkish press statement suggest that EUR/USD downside will be limited, with support seen around 1.4755.

The JPY has strengthened by around 5% versus USD since its 6th April USD/JPY high around 85.53, confounding expectations that Japan’s FX intervention following the county’s devastating earthquake marked a major turning point in the currency. A combination of narrowing interest rate differentials with the US (2 year US/Japan yield differentials have narrowed by around 20bps in the past month), strong capital inflows to Japan (net bond and equity flows in the last four weeks have increased to their highest this year), and rising risk aversion have all played their part in driving the JPY higher.

As a result USD/JPY is fast approaching the psychologically important level of 80, a level that if breached will likely lead to FX intervention. Although Golden Week holidays in Japan this week suggest that JPY liquidity may be quite thin, Japanese authorities are likely to remain resistant to further gains in the JPY, likely using thinning liquidity to their advantage.

Despite the JPY’s recent strength speculative positioning over the past four weeks has remained net short JPY, whilst Japanese margin traders have also increased their long USD/JPY bets, suggesting that these classes of investors are not to blame for the JPY’s appreciation. This suggests that FX intervention may not be as successful given that the market is already short JPY.

Given the risk of intervention on USD/JPY, the CHF appears to be an easier choice for safe haven demand against the background of rising risk aversion. The currency has risen to a record high against the USD, gaining around 8.3% so far this year. Given the hints of higher interest rates by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) and resilience economic performance, downside risks for CHF are limited at present unless risk appetite improves sharply. Further gains are likely with USD/CHF likely to test the 0.8570 support level over the short-term.

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