Why the JPY will weaken

While I continue to forecast JPY weakness over the coming months the JPY is currently being buffeted by various forces. Elevated risk aversion has limited the downside for JPY as the currency has once again found a safe haven bid although it has weakened as risk appetite improved slightly overnight.

Going forward, I expect US Treasury yields to move sharply higher as the US economy gains momentum and loses the shackles of bad weather, pressurising USD/JPY higher. Additionally likely further easing by the BoJ in April / May will contribute to downward pressure on the JPY.

Separately Japan has shifted from possessing a relatively strong broad basic balance surplus (current account + direct investment + portfolio flows) to a deficit, a factor that will undermine the JPY over the coming months.


JPY, EUR and GBP view

It is highly unlikely that the Bank of Japan adjusts policy at its meeting later this week but further action next year remains likely. More importantly for USD/JPY will be the actions of the Fed this week and the subsequent move in US yields. US 10 year yields have struggled to sustain a move above 2.9% recently, reducing the yield advantage over JGBs and in turn pulling USD/JPY back from its highs.

It is only a matter of time before US yields resume their uptrend and in this respect the outlook remains for more USD/JPY upside. Nonetheless, I am cognisant of the large short (CFTC IMM) JPY position in the speculative market, which into year end suggests plenty of scope for position squaring and short USD covering.

The EUR is set to end the year on firm note but further upside looks limited and the risk / reward favours selling the currency from current levels. Although economic data reveals continued improvement as reflected in the flash Eurozone composite purchasing managers’ index yesterday, much in terms of recovery expectations is in the price.

While a strong basic balance (current account + FDI + portfolio flows) continues to underpin the EUR I do not expect this to persist. Nonetheless as many bears have found out the EUR is a difficult currency to sell and while EUR/USD is likely to increasingly struggle on its approach to 1.3800, any sell off will not be rapid unless the ECB belatedly adopts a more aggressive monetary policy stance.

Like the EUR, GBP is struggling to push higher, as profit takers emerge and a dose of reality sets in given the magnitude of its rally versus USD over recent months (around 10% since July). The rationale for GBP’s gains are clear; surprisingly good economic data and a reassessment of monetary policy implications. However, GBP bullishness has resulted in net long speculative positions reaching their highest since 15 January 2013.

Further GBP gains will require yet more positive economic surprises but this is unlikely to be delivered in the jobs data, inflation data and Bank of England MPC minutes over coming days. Consequently GBP/USD is unlikely to extend gains above 1.6300 in the near term.

Limbo ahead of Fed FOMC meeting

A mixed session overnight leaves markets with little direction ahead of the Bank of Japan and Federal Reserve FOMC meetings today. There was no stimulus for markets from the meeting of European officials yesterday while Greece’s debt swap has failed to boost confidence.

Overall there is a real hesitancy for investors to take positions, with both volumes and volatility remaining very low. For instance the VIX volatility gauge has dropped to its lowest level since May 2011 while my measure of composite FX volatility continues to languish at relatively low levels compared to last year.

The USD has little to fear from the Fed FOMC meeting tonight. If anything it may even benefit from a less downbeat statement from Fed Chairman Bernanke following the meeting. Growing speculation that the Fed will embark on some form of sterilised quantitative easing, i.e. not printing any more money, bodes well for the USD too.

Ahead of the FOMC decision a firm February retail sales report will help add to the plethora of evidence revealing stronger signs of US recovery. A key indicator to watch in this respect is the (National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) report of small business confidence which should also strengthen. Importantly for the USD the data should also help to maintain pressure on US bonds, keeping yields elevated and in turn the USD supported.

The BoJ meeting today will not deliver any surprises, an outcome that will likely leave the JPY largely unmoved. Speculative sentiment for the JPY has shifted negatively as reflected in the latest CFTC IMM report which reveals the biggest short position in the currency since April last year.

Crucial in pushing the JPY weaker has been the widening in bond yield differentials with the US, thanks largely to a rise in US bond yields. The 2-year yield gap is now around 20 basis points, the highest gap since August 2011. This will help to keep USD/JPY supported but my quantitative models suggest that the upmove may be overdone in the short term, with a correction lower in prospect to technical support around 81.44.

Euro and yen downside risks

The lack of progress on a second bailout for Greece will keep markets nervous, leaving risk assets vulnerable to further slippage. The USD will be a beneficiary in this environment. Weak Eurozone GDP data for Q4 2011 released today will contrast with relatively firm data including industrial production and the Empire manufacturing survey in the US, leaving the story of US economic outperformance intact.

EUR has lost steam and looks vulnerable to a further correction lower. The fact that EU finance ministers have cancelled a meeting due to be held today means that markets will have to prolong their wait for an agreement on a second bailout package for Greece.

News that Greece’s political leaders will send a commitment to European officials today that they will implement further austerity measures will give some reassurance that things are moving in the right direction but a looming deadline for debt redemption in March will mean heightened nervousness.

Admittedly the market is still short EUR but positioning has moved close to its 3-month average suggesting a less potential for aggressive short covering. Following the downgrade of ratings of several Eurozone countries yesterday and a likely drop in Q4 2011 Eurozone GDP today, caution will be the prevalent theme today, leaving EUR/USD on the back foot and opening the door for a test of technical support around 1.3026.

The Bank of Japan’s decision to increase its asset purchase program and set an inflation goal had an immediate negative impact on the JPY. A sharp drop in GDP growth in Q4 last year, persistent deflation pressures and more aggressive action from other central banks pushed the BoJ into action.

Will there be any follow through on the JPY? USD/JPY had already been under some upward pressure in the wake of the widening in US bond yields versus Japan. The move by the BoJ will result in even more of a widening in yield differentials especially given that the BoJ actions means there will be an increase in official purchases of Japanese government bonds, helping to suppress JGB yields.

In the near term USD/JPY has broken above its 200 day moving average level, paving the way for a test of the 31 October 2011 high around 79.55. Further out, our bond forecasts show that both US and Eurozone 2-year bond yields will increase relative to Japanese yields over the coming months, supporting our forecasts of USD and EUR appreciation versus JPY.

Dollar, euro and yen view

Pressure on the US dollar was maintained last week but there were definite signs that selling momentum is slowing. The lack of major US data releases meant that the key focus for the USD was events in Europe. This week there will be some return of attention back to the domestic front, with heavyweight releases such January retail sales, manufacturing surveys, industrial production and inflation data.

On balance the data will provide more evidence of US recovery but as we have noted previously this is not necessarily positive for the USD. Firmer US data helps to boost risk appetite, which in turn plays negatively for the USD. This could be counterbalanced if US interest rate expectations turn more hawkish but the Fed has effectively ruled out such a prospect, with its commitment to maintain easy policy.

Europe has some important data releases over coming days including the German February ZEW survey and GDP data across the Eurozone. The data will be less encouraging, especially the Eurozone GDP data, compared to the US and is unlikely to give any support to the EUR. Instead events surrounding Greece will be crucial for EUR sentiment. EUR/USD appeared to lose some traction at the end of the week but the EUR remained firm against other currencies.

Greece’s approval of austerity measures overnight will bode well for markets but the tough stance of EU officials towards Greek austerity implementation means that focus will turn to yet another extraordinary meeting of European officials on Wednesday. Even assuming that some form debt deal and second bailout package is ironed out it is questionable how much the EUR will rally as so much good news is already in the price.

The JPY for a change managed to register relatively big moves, with USD/JPY pushing higher over the past week. The revelation that ‘stealth’ FX intervention was carried out by the authorities in Japan taken together with verbal warnings threatening more intervention helped to exacerbate JPY moves.

Speculation that the Bank of Japan is pondering further easing steps at its policy meeting on Tuesday may also be contributing to the softer tone in the JPY. Such hopes may be disappointed however, as we expect the BoJ to retain its current policy settings. The biggest factor explaining the move in USD/JPY is the fact that US bond yields moved higher relative to Japan, with the yield differential ending the week at its highest so far this year.

Contagion spreading like wildfire

EUR continues to head lower and is is destined to test support around 1.3484 versus USD where it came close overnight. Contagion in eurozone debt markets is spreading quickly, with various countries’ sovereign spreads widening to record levels against German bunds including Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Austria. Poor T-bill auctions in Spain and Belgium, speculation of downgrades to French, Italian and Austrian debt, and a weak reading for the November German ZEW investor confidence index added to the pressure.

A bill auction in Portugal today will provide further direction but the precedent so far this week is not good. The fact that markets have settled back into the now usual scepticism over the ability of authorities in Europe to get their act together highlights the continued downside risks to EUR/USD. Although there is likely to be significant buying around the 1.3500 level, one has to question how long the EUR will continue to skate on thin ice.

The Bank of Japan is widely expected to leave policy unchanged today but the bigger focus is on the Japanese authorities’ stance on the JPY. Finance Minister Azumi noted yesterday that there was no change in his stance on fighting JPY speculators. To some extent the fight against speculators is being won given that IMM speculative positions and TFX margin positioning in JPY has dropped back sharply since the last FX intervention to weaken the JPY.

However, this has done little to prevent further JPY appreciation, with USD/JPY continuing to drift lower over recent days having already covered around half the ground lost in the wake of the October 31 intervention. Markets are likely therefore to take Azumi’s threats with a pinch of salt and will only balk at driving the JPY higher if further intervention takes place. Meanwhile, USD/JPY looks set to grind lower.

GBP will take its direction from the Bank of England Quarterly Inflation Report and October jobs data today. There will be particular attention on the willingness of the BoE to implement further quantitative easing. A likely dovish report should by rights play negatively for GBP but the reaction is not so obvious. Since the announcement of GBP 75 billion in asset purchases a month ago GBP has fared well especially against the EUR, with the currency perhaps being rewarded for the proactive stance of the BoE.

Moreover, the simple fact that GBP is not the EUR has given it a quasi safe haven quality, which has helped it to remain relatively resilient. Nonetheless, GBP will find it difficult to avoid detaching from the coat tails of a weaker EUR and in this respect looks set to test strong support around GBP/USD 1.5630 over the short term.

European agreement at last

Following a drawn out period of discussions European officials have finally agreed on a haircut or debt write off of around 50% of Greek debt versus 21% agreed in July. In addition the EFSF bailout fund will be leveraged up to about EUR 1.4 trillion, with the new EFSF scheduled to be in place next month. The haircut for Greek debt is aimed at ensuring that Greece’s debt to GDP ratio drops to 120% by 2012.

The reaction of markets was initially favourable with EUR/USD breaching 1.40 and risk / high beta currencies bouncing. I doubt that the upward momentum in EUR can be sustained, however, with plenty of questions on the mechanics of the deal, especially about leveraging the EFSF fund, remaining. I suspect that the EUR may have already priced in some of the good news.

Data releases, especially in the US are offering markets more positive news. Following on from firm readings for US durable goods orders and new home sales, today’s US Q3 GDP expected to reveal an acceleration in growth to a 2.5% annual rate, will help to alleviate recession fears to some extent. The USD may benefit if the data reduces expectations of further Fed quantitative easing especially given the recent comments from some Fed officials indicating that the door is open to more QE.

In Japan attention was firmly fixed on the Bank of Japan policy meeting and the prospects for FX intervention to weaken the JPY. In the event the BoJ kept its overnight rate unchanged at 0.1% as expected and expanded its credit program by JPY 5 trillion and asset purchase fund to JPY 20 trillion.

The measures are aimed to easing deflation pressure but the real focus in the FX market is whether there is any attempt to the weaken the JPY. I am currently in Tokyo and here there is plenty of nervousness about possible FX intervention being imminent. Speculation of such intervention will likely help to prevent USD/JPY sustaining a drop below the 75.00 over coming days.

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