FX ‘Flash Crash’

Happy New Year! What a start its been so far.  Weak Chinese data kicked off the year yesterday, with a manufacturing sentiment gauge, the Caixin purchasing manager’s index (PMI), falling into contraction territory for the first time in 19 months, another sign of slowing growth in China’s economy.  This was echoed by other manufacturing PMIs, especially those of trade orientated countries in Asia.   Taking a look at global emerging market PMIs reveals a picture of broadly slowing growth.

Lack of progress on the trade front despite positive noises from both the US and China, and no sign of an ending of the US government shut down are similarly weighing on sentiment as are concerns about slowing US economic growth and of course Fed rate hikes.  The latest contributor to market angst is the lowering of Apple’s revenue outlook, with the company now expecting sales of around $84bn in the quarter ending Dec 29 from earlier estimates of $89bn to $93bn.

All of this and thin liquidity, with a Japanese holiday today and many market participants not back from holidays, contributed to very sharp moves in FX markets.  The biggest mover was the JPY, which surged, leading to an appreciation of around 7.7% versus the AUD at one point and strong gains against other currencies.  Some have attributed algorithmic platform pricing to the sharp FX moves today, but whatever the reason, it shows that markets are on edge.

Although US equity markets closed in positive territory yesterday (barely), the above factors suggest another day in the red for equity markets and risk assets today.  While the JPY has retraced some its sharp gains, it and other safe haven assets such as CHF and US Treasuries are likely to find firm demand in the current environment.   Although I would not suggest extrapolating early year trading too far into the future, the volatility in the first two trading days of the year will be concerning for investors after a painful 2018. More pain in the weeks ahead should not be ruled out.

 

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All eyes on G20

Although we move from feast to famine this week in terms of data there are still a few events that are noteworthy. In the US the September trade balance (Wed) will be of interest with a narrowing expected. Net exports negatively impacted GDP in Q3 but this is likely to reverse in Q4. Michigan confidence at the end of week is also likely to reveal better news with a rebound expected in October in the wake of firming equities, whilst the October budget statement is likely to reveal a sharp narrowing compared to October last year. Several Fed speakers over the week will be also be in focus as markets try to gauge the level of support within the FOMC for the QE2 announced last week.

There are a few data releases of interest in the eurozone including the preliminary estimate of Q3 GDP. Worryingly the divergence across the eurozone between healthier northern Europe and weaker performing in Southern Europe is becoming increasingly stark, a big headache for the Eurozone Central Bank with its one size fits all policy. Elsewhere, in the UK the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report will be scrutinized to determine whether recently firmer data and sticky inflation has pushed the BoE away from following the Fed into QE2. Japan’s volatile machinery orders data marks the highlight of its calendar, with a sharp drop expected in September following two strong months.

The main event of the week is the G20 leaders meeting in Seoul at the tail end of the week. Rhetoric going into the meeting suggests little support for the US plan to limit current account surpluses to 4% of GDP and even US officials appear to have cooled on the idea. Moreover the G20 meeting will probably elicit further reaction to the Fed’s QE2 announcement. Reaction was highly critical initially but seems to have softened lately. Currencies will nonetheless, remain the major topic of discussion although expectations of a global agreement are likely to be disappointed.

The Fed’s QE2 announcement helped provide a prop to risk assets and weighed on the USD last week despite the amount of asset purchases being within expectations. The USD will remain a sell on rallies this week and once again the best way to play USD weakness is likely via the higher yielding commodity currencies, especially AUD and NZD. Scandinavian currencies also offer a good way to capitalize on USD weakness.

The EUR may also struggle this week given worries about peripheral Europe and widening in peripheral bond spreads. Ireland’s budget cuts announced last week have so far failed to shore up confidence whilst political uncertainties are also rising. Greece’s regional elections revealed that the ruling socialist party narrowly retained control allowing the government to continue with reforms suggesting a modicum of support for its debt. Nonetheless, with Irish and Portuguese sovereign worries continuing, the EUR will continue to lag. Notably the CFTC IMM data revealed that speculative EUR sentiment deteriorated in the latest week to its lowest in over a month. EUR/USD is likely to target 1.3864 after dropping swiftly below the 1.4000 level.

Perhaps best way to play EUR vulnerability is versus the AUD, with a further decline through 1.3800 likely to pave the way for a drop below the 13 September low around 1.3660. AUD/JPY may also be another cross worth exploring especially as Japan’s new fund begins buying JGBs today, which could limit JPY upside. A test of AUD/JPY 83.65 is on the cards shortly. If Australia’s October employment report on Thursday reveals another strong reading it will likely give the currency further support into the end of the week.

Risk Appetite Puts Dollar On The Back Foot

Markets look somewhat calmer going into this week helped by comments by Fed members who noted that the discount rate hike did not signal a shift in monetary policy, something which is likely to be repeated by Fed Chairman Bernanke in his testimony to Congress on Wednesday and Thursday.  A tame US January CPI report last Friday helped too, giving further support to the view that the Fed will not hike the Fed Funds rate for some time yet; a rate hike this year seems highly unlikely in my view.  

Data this week will be conducive to a further improvement in risk appetite and despite the lingering concerns about Greece the EUR may find itself in a position to extend gains.  In Europe all eyes will be on the February German IFO survey and eurozone sentiment indicators, which following the surprising strength in the manufacturing Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs), are likely to reveal solid gains. 

The main highlights in Japan this week includes January trade data and industrial production. The trade numbers will be particularly important to determine whether the rebound in exports due in large part to robust Asian demand, has continued whilst the bounce back in exports will be a key factor in fuelling a further gain in industrial output. 

In the US aside from the testimonies by Fed Chairman Bernanke there are plenty of releases on tap including consumer confidence, new and existing home sales, durable goods orders and a likely upward revision to Q4 GDP.  For the most part the data will show improvement and play for a further improvement in risk appetite. 

FX direction will depend on whether markets focus on the potentially positive USD impact of a reduction in USD liquidity or on the likely firmer tone to risk appetite this week.  Given expectations of firmer data and the soothing tone of the Fed, risk currencies will likely perform better, with crosses such as AUD/JPY favoured.  The USD will likely be placed on the back foot, especially given the very long market positioning in the currency.

The EUR will be helped by the fact that speculative market, according to the CFTC IMM data, holds record short positions in the EUR (as of the week ended 16 February) giving plenty of potential for short-covering.   The more timely Tokyo Financial Exchange (TFX) data also reveals that positioning in EUR/JPY has continued to be scaled back.  

CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data – Net EUR speculative positioning

EUR/USD bounced smartly from its lows around 1.3444 on Friday, partly reflecting some short covering and the drop in FX volatility suggests the market is more comfortable with EUR/USD around these levels.  A positive IFO survey and improved risk appetite could see EUR/USD test resistance around 1.3774, its 20 day moving average, over coming days.  Ongoing Greek concerns suggest that any EUR bounce will be limited, however. 

USD/JPY looks well supported and although data this week will suggest that exports are improving despite JPY strength, the relatively more aggressive stance of the Fed compared to the BoJ, long JPY positioning, and improved risk appetite, give plenty of scope for the JPY to extend losses, with technical USD/JPY support seen around 91.28.

Dubai’s aftermath

Dubai’s bolt out of the blue is hitting markets globally, with the aftershock made worse by the thin liquidity conditions in the wake of the US Thanksgiving holiday and Eid holidays in the Middle East.  The sell off followed news by government owned Dubai Holdings of a six month debt freeze.  Estimates of exposure to Dubai vary considerably, with European banks estimated to have around $40 billion in exposure though what part of this is at risk is another question. 

The lack of information surrounding the Dubai announcement made matters worse.  The aftermath is likely to continue to be felt over the short term, with further selling of risk assets likely.  Indeed, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding international exposure to Dubai or what risk there is to this exposure and until there is further clarity stocks look likely to face another drubbing.

The most sensitive currencies with risk aversion over the past month have been the JPY, and USD index, which benefit from rising risk aversion whilst on the other side of the coin, most Asian currencies especially the THB and KRW as well as the ZAR, and AUD look vulnerable to any rise in risk aversion.  JPY crosses look to be under most pressure, with the likes of AUD/JPY dropping sharply and these currencies are likely to drop further amidst rising risk aversion. 

The rise in the JPY has been particularly dramatic and has prompted a wave of comments from Japanese officials attempting to talk the JPY lower including comments by Finance Minister Fujii that he “will contact US and Europe on currencies if needed”.  So far, these comments have had little effect, with USD/JPY falling briefly through the key psychological level of 85.00, marking a major rally in the JPY from a high of 89.19 at the beginning of the week.  Unless markets believe there is a real threat of FX intervention by Japan the official comments will continue to be ignored.

It’s not all about risk aversion for the JPY, with interest rate differential playing a key role in the downward move in USD/JPY over recent weeks.  USD/JPY has had a high 0.79 correlation with interest rate differentials over the past month.  The US / Japan rate differential narrowed sharply (ie lower US rate premium to Japan) to just around 4.5bps from around 100bps at the beginning of August.  With both interest rate differentials and risk aversion playing for a stronger JPY the strong JPY bias is set to continue over the short term.

Is this the beginning of a new rout in global markets?  It is more likely another bump on the road to recovery, with the impact all the larger due to the surprise factor of Duba’s announcement as it was widely thought that Dubai was on the road to recovery.  The fact that the news took place on a US holiday made matters worse whilst the weight of long risk trades suggests an exaggerated fall out over the short term.

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