Federal Reserve Speakers In Focus

After a major flattening of the US Treasury curve last week in the wake of the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, this week will be important to determine how comfortable the Fed is with the market reaction to its shift in stance, with a number of speakers on tap including Fed Chairman Powell who testifies to Congress today.

In summary, the Fed FOMC was much less dovish than expected and acknowledged that they are formally thinking about thinking about tapering. The most obvious shift was in the Fed FOMC dot plot, with the median Fed official now expecting 50bp of tightening by the end of 2023.  

Notably, St. Louis Fed President Bullard was even more hawkish on Friday, highlighting the prospects of a “late 2022” hike in US policy rates.  Moreover, Fed speakers overnight did not walk back from the FOMC statement, with Presidents Bullard, Kaplan and Williams delivering views.  Kaplan favours tapering “sooner rather than later”, while Bullard highlighted upside risks to inflation. 

Nonetheless despite hawkish comments, markets have calmed somewhat following the sharp post FOMC reaction last week, which reeked of a major positioning squeeze.  Longer end US Treasury yields move higher overnight while equities recouped losses and the USD weakened. Today most attention will fall on Fed Chairman Powell’s testimony before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on “The Federal Reserve’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” 

This week there are also several central bank decisions on hand.  Yesterday, China’s central bank PBoC, left policy on hold for a 14th straight month. China is in no rush to raise its policy rate and will likely focus on liquidity adjustments to fine tune policy. Other central bank policy decisions this week will come from Hungary (today), Thailand (Wed), Czech Republic (Wed), Philippines, UK, and Mexico (all on Thu).  

The NBH in Hungary is expected to hike policy rates, with both the 1 week depo rate and base rate likely to be hiked by 30bps. The Czech National bank is also expected to hike, with a 25bp increase in policy rates expected by consensus.  All the rest are forecast to leave policy on hold.  The key data releases this week will be the US May PCE report on Friday, which will likely reveal another sharp rise in prices.  

Although the USD weakened overnight it still looks positive technically, with the dollar index (DXY) remaining above its 200-day moving and MACD differential remaining positive. The Asian dollar index (ADXY) marks an interesting level for Asian FX as its is verging on a break below its 200-day moving average around 108.2861.  As such, the USD bounce may have a little more to run in the short term.

The euro (EUR) will be in focus to see if it breaks below 1.19, with the currency looking vulnerable on a technical basis to further downside. Similarly, the Australian dollar (AUD) is trading just below its 200 day moving average any may struggle to appreciate in the short term.

Watching US Yields

Risk assets struggled to make headway last week, with technology stocks stumbling in particular.  Nonetheless, inflows into equities remain strong as more and more retail money is drawn in (perhaps signs of a near term peak).  Asian stocks started the week in positive mood despite last week’s nervousness, but equity investors will continue to keep one eye on the move in US yields.

US Treasuries continued to remain under pressure and the curve continued to bear steepen.  A combination of US fiscal stimulus hopes/expectations, vaccine progress and reduction in COVID cases, appear to be pressuring bonds. President Biden is likely to pass his $1.9 tn stimulus package in the weeks ahead, with a House vote likely this week, while the Fed continues to dampen down of any tapering talk, helping to push inflation expectations as reflected in break-evens, higher.  Indeed, this will likely be the message from a number of Fed speeches this week including Chair Powell testifying before Congress (Tue and Wed). 

Despite higher US nominal and real yields and visibly more nervous equities, the US dollar (USD) continues to struggle, failing to find a trigger to much covering of the massive short USD position still present.  We note that non-commercial FX futures positioning data (CFTC IMM) revealed only a limited reduction in aggregate USD short positions (as a % of open interest) in the latest week. Antipodean currencies led the way at the end of last week, but pound sterling (GBP) speculative positions have seen the biggest bounce over the last couple of weeks. 

Despite the USDs reluctance to rally lately, the short-term bias could shift to a firmer USD sooner rather than later, including against Asian emerging market currencies.  Indeed, several Asian currencies lost ground last week, with the Philippines peso (PHP) and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) leading the way lower.  The Asia USD index (ADXY) appears to have peaked and looks vulnerable to more short-term downside.

US economic data at the end of last week revealed that the flash estimates for the February purchasing managers indices (PMIs) stayed at fairly strong levels for both the manufacturing and services sectors.  Separately, US existing home sales posted stronger-than-expected numbers for January.

Attention this week will be on progress of passage on US fiscal stimulus as well as a number of central bank decisions beginning with China (today), New Zealand (Wed,) Hungary (Wed), and South Korea (Fri).  No policy changes from these central banks are likely.  Also of interest will be the UK’s announcement on exit plans from the current lockdown (today) and Germany’s Feb IFO survey, which is forecast to edge higher. 

Asian currencies at multi-year highs

Asian currencies are stronger in the wake of a sharp improvement in risk appetite following the approval of Greece’s austerity measures. The rally in Asian FX is revealed in the ADXY (an index of Asian currencies) index which is approaching a test of its 2nd May high around 119.26 around its highest level since August 1997. Technical indicators have turned more bullish, with the ADXY breaking above its key moving average levels (20, 50 & 100 day) and the 14-day relative strength index also turning higher.

The Asian FX rally has been led by the KRW, the Asian currency that has had the highest correlation with risk over the past few weeks. Given that risk aversion has dropped sharply since mid June it is no surprise that this currency has strengthened the most. USD/KRW is trading around its lowest level since August 2008. Strong equity capital outflows had kept the KRW on the back foot over much of June but there has been a bounce back in flows recently. However, USD/KRW is likely to find it tough to break below 1060 over the short-term, especially given likely resistance from the local authorities.

The THB, the worst performing Asian currency in June, has rapidly reversed some of its losses. The THB looks set to consolidate its gains following a decisive election result which saw the opposition Puea Thai Party gain control of parliament. The biggest relief for markets was the fact that the outcome was relatively clear cut, suggesting a potentially a smooth handover of power. Nonetheless, the currency has already jumped and after having dropped to around 30.40 from a high of around 31.01 USD/THB is likely to trade off gyrations in risk appetite.

The fact that the USD has lost some ground in the wake of firmer risk appetite and better news in Greece has also allowed Asian currencies to strengthen although it’s worth noting that amongst Asian currencies only the MYR has maintained a significant correlation with the USD index over the past 3-months. In other words, although USD weakness has helped to facilitate Asian currency strength, the recent strengthening in Asian FX is more likely to have been due to a rebound in capital inflows to the region.

Further Asian FX gains are likely over the near term especially as China continues to fix the CNY higher versus USD but given the recent rapid gains in some currencies, there is a risk of growing official resistance and intervention to slow or stem Asian FX gains. Moreover, the end of QE2 in the US suggests that the downside risks for the USD in general are not likely to be as prevalent, with a potential recovery in the USD over H2 likely to stand in the way of strong Asian FX gains over coming months.

Markets in limbo ahead of policy rate decisions

Markets are generally range-bound ahead of tomorrow’s Japan, Eurozone and UK interest rate decisions, as reflected in the flat performance of equity markets overnight. Risk appetite remains positive though still lower than the high levels seen during most of March. China’s interest rate hike did not change the market’s perspective, with markets reacting well.

Overnight the Fed FOMC minutes reflected a range of opinions on the timing of the end of QE2 and the Fed’s exit strategy but the majority view was to end QE2 as planned at the end of June leaving markets, with little new to digest. The USD was a little undermined by a weaker than expected US March ISM non-manufacturing survey but losses are likely to be limited.

Meanwhile there was more negative peripheral news in Europe, with Moody’s cutting Portugal’s sovereign credit ratings by one notch, with Moody’s highlighting the urgent need for financial support from the EU. Portuguese debt took a hit but eurozone markets in general including the EUR continue to take such news in their stride, with EUR/USD holding above 1.4200. Firm readings for the eurozone final services purchasing managers index (PMI) in March helped to support sentiment, outweighing the negative impact of a drop in eurozone retail sales.

GBP was a key outperformer, helped by a much stronger than expected services PMI, which helped GBP/USD breach 1.63 overnight. Today’s industrial and manufacturing production data will likely reveal firm readings too, helping GBP to consolidate its gains but the currency looks rather rich around current levels, with risks skewed to the downside.

JPY was another mover, having breached 85.00 versus the USD, with USD/JPY now some 6 big figures higher from its post earthquake lows. Japanese authorities will undoubtedly see a measure of success from their joint intervention but the reality is that the shift in bond yields (2-year US / Japan yield differentials have widened by close to 30 basis points since mid March, are finally having some impact on USD/JPY as reflected in the strengthening in short-term correlations.

EUR/USD remains resilient to negative peripheral news such as the Portugal credit ratings downgrade, with further direction from tomorrow’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and accompanying statement. The risk that the ECB is not as hawkish as the market has priced in holds some downside risks to EUR.

Asian currencies are holding up well though it looks as though the ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asian currency index) may have hit a short term barrier. Range trading for EUR/USD suggests little directional influence for Asian currencies in the short-term. Nonetheless, portfolio capital inflows continue to support Asian FX with all Asian equity markets recording foreign inflows so far this month. In particular, KRW continues to outperform. Note that Korea has recorded a whopping inflow of $1.1bn in equity inflows month-to-date.

Equity Flow Reversal Supports Asian FX

Asian currencies have rebounded smartly from their post Japan earthquake lows on March 16. The ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asia Currency index) is now at its highest level since September 1997 reflecting a sharp rebound in capital inflows to the region. The performance of Asian currencies continues to correspond closely with the movement in capital flows.

Although almost all Asian equity markets have registered outflows so far this year (total equity outflows -$6.2bn), the trend is reversing. Over the past month there has been a major slowing in capital outflows for most countries in Asia whilst India, Thailand and the Philippines have actually registered sizeable inflows. South Korea is notable in that there has been a sharp increase in equity capital inflows over the past week.

Although there has been much focus on a rotation of capital flows out of Asia and into developed economies this year, it is worth noting that the pattern of equity flows in Q1 2011 has not been too different from that witnessed in the past couple of years. In both 2009 and 2010 equity outflows were recorded over the two (2010) or three (2009) months of the year before a reversal took place. This pattern looks like it is repeating itself.

Clearly the environment for Asian equity markets is not as supportive as it was last year given the belated tightening in monetary policies being undertaken by many central banks and prospects of an end to QE2 in the US. Whilst this will result in some reduction in capital flows to the region compared to last year, the overall outlook is positive. Easing risk aversion (our risk aversion barometer has already reversed all of its post Japan earthquake spike and is trending lower), positive growth outlook and maintenance of low US rates point to more inflows.

One currency in particular that will benefit is KRW, with a further drop in USD/KRW likely over coming weeks. KRW has already strengthened by around by around 2.7% since its post Japan earthquake low making it the best performing currency since then. Further gains are likely; a test of USD/KRW 1100 is on the cards in the short-term, with the year end target standing at 1050.

Why buy KRW? 1) Korea has registered the biggest improvement in equity capital flows recently, 2) KRW has been the most sensitive Asian currency to risk over the past month and therefore benefits the most as risk appetite improves, 3) Estimated Price/Earnings ratio for Korean equities looks cheap compared to its historical z-score according to our estimates. As a result our quantitative model on USD/KRW based on commodity prices, risk aversion and equity performance highlights the potential for significantly more KRW strength.

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