US dollar weakness providing relief

The US dollar index has weakened since mid-August 2018 although weakness in the broad trade weighted USD has become more apparent since the beginning of this month.  Despite a further increase in US yields, 10 year treasury yields have risen in recent weeks to close to 3.1%, the USD has surprisingly not benefited.  It is not clear what is driving USD weakness but improving risk appetite is likely to be a factor. Markets have been increasingly long USDs and this positioning overhang has also acted as a restraint on the USD.

Most G10 currencies have benefitted in September, with The Swedish krona (SEK), Norwegian Krone (NOK) and British pound (GBP) gaining most.  The Japanese yen (JPY) on the other hand has been the only G10 currency to weaken this month as an improvement in risk appetite has led to reduced safe haven demand for the currency.

In Asia most currencies are still weaker versus the dollar over September, with the Indian rupee leading the declines.  Once again Asia’s current account deficit countries (India, Indonesia, and Philippines) have underperformed most others though the authorities in all three countries have become more aggressive in terms of trying to defend their currencies.  Indeed, The Philippines and Indonesia are likely to raise policy interest rates tomorrow while the chance of a rate hike from India’s central bank next week has risen.

As the USD weakens it will increasingly help many emerging market currencies.   The likes of the Argentinian peso, Turkish lira and Brazilian real have been particularly badly beaten up, dropping 51.3%, 38.5% and 18.8%, respectively this year.  Although much of the reason for their declines have been idiosyncratic in nature, USD weakness would provide a major source of relief.  It’s too early to suggest that this drop in the USD is anything more than a correction especially given the proximity to the Fed FOMC decision later, but early signs are positive.

 

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Fed pulls the trigger

The guessing game is finally over as the US Federal Reserve took a major step away from the extremely easy policy conditions implemented since the financial crisis by tapering its asset purchases by USD 10 billion, split equally by reduced Treasury and mortgage backed securities purchases. Indeed the Fed finally put markets out of their misery but successfully massaged the market reaction.

The Fed is set to gradually reduce asset purchases over coming months, likely ending its QE program by late 2014. The decision was supported by most Fed officials but to soften the blow the Fed strengthened its forward guidance, helping equity markets to rally while encouraging the short end of the curve.

Conversely Treasuries came under pressure and yields rose, giving a boost to the USD. Markets are likely to digest the news well in the Asian session following the lead from US markets. Nonetheless, while the Fed decision was predicated on stronger growth, the decision will presage a competition for capital especially among emerging markets.

The biggest FX reaction unsurprisingly (given its greater sensitivity to US yields) came from USD/JPY, with the currency breezing past the 104 level. However, given that US yields have not pushed significantly higher in the wake of the Fed tapering decision the boost to the USD will be limited in the short term. Indeed, FX markets will likely digest the Fed news will little reaction both in major and emerging market currencies in the short term.

Further out, the prospects for contrasting policy stances between the Fed, ECB and BoJ imply that the USD will forge higher against the EUR and JPY as well as other major currencies. Meanwhile, highly correlated currencies with US Treasury yields, in particular in the emerging markets spectrum, including INR, TRY, and BRL, will be the most sensitive to an expected rise in US yields over the coming months.

Beware of yield sensitive currencies

Markets are becoming increasingly accustomed to the idea of an imminent Fed tapering as reflected in ongoing gains in risk assets. Indeed, these gains have taken place even in the face of comments by Fed officials overnight including Bullard and Fisher which on balance supported the view of beginning tapering sooner rather than later.

The fact that US bond yields continue to decline despite the release of a slate of firmer US and global data also suggests that a lot in terms of tapering expectations are priced in. Nonetheless, year end position adjustment may also account for some of the moves, particularly with the USD coming under near term pressure against most currencies except JPY as US yields slip.

I remain constructive on the USD given that US growth will outperform, with an attendant rise in US yields. Not only am I constructive on the USD against many major currencies, I expect the USD to strengthen versus many emerging market currencies too.

Those currencies most sensitive to US yields (10 year US Treasuries) will be among the biggest underperformers in 2014. This list includes the INR, TRY, MYR, and BRL. The rationale for weakness in these currencies is that Fed tapering and higher US yields will further increase capital outflows or at least reduce inflows to many countries.

Conversely some of the currencies least effected by tapering / higher US yields are in the top half of the likely outperformers next year including KRW and TWD.

US Dollar On The Rise

There are plenty of US releases on tap this week but perhaps the most important for the USD will be the minutes of the April 26-27 Fed FOMC meeting. Taken together with speeches by Fed officials including Bernanke, FX markets will attempt to gauge clues to Fed policy post the end of QE2. The Fed’s stance at this point will be the major determinant of whether the USD can sustain its rally over the medium term. The lack of back up in US bond yields suggests that USD momentum could slow, with markets likely to move into wide ranges over coming weeks.

It is worth considering which currencies will suffer more in the event that the USD extends its gains. The correlation between the USD index and EUR/USD is extremely strong (even accounting for the fact that the EUR is a large part of the USD index) suggesting that the USDs gains are largely a result of the EUR’s woes. Aside from the EUR, GBP, AUD and CAD are the most sensitive major currencies to USD strength whilst many emerging market currencies including ZAR, TRY, SGD, KRW, THB, IDR, BRL and MXN, are all highly susceptible to the impact of a stronger USD.

Robust Q1 GDP growth readings in both Germany and France helped to spur gains in the EUR but this proved short-lived. Sentiment for the currency has soured and as reflected in the CFTC IMM data long positions are being scaled back. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of scope for more EUR selling given ongoing worries about the eurozone periphery, which are finally taking their toll on the EUR. A break below EUR/USD 1.4021 would open the door for a test of 1.3980.

The eurogroup and ecofin meetings will be of interest to markets this week but any additional support for Greece is unlikely to be announced at this time. However, likely approval of Portugal’s bailout may alleviate some pressure on the EUR but any positive impetus will be limited. Even on the data front, markets will not be impressed with the German ZEW index of investor confidence likely to register a further decline in May.

Japanese officials have been shying away from further FX intervention by blaming the drop in USD/JPY over recent weeks on general USD weakness despite the move towards 80. However, this view is not really backed up by correlation analysis which shows that there is only a very low sensitivity of USD/JPY to general USD moves over recent months. One explanation for the strength of the JPY is strong flows of portfolio capital into Japan, with both bond and equity markets registering net inflows over the past four straight weeks.

This is not the only explanation, however. One of the main JPY drivers has been a narrowing in yield differentials. This is unlikely to persist with yield differentials set to widen sharply over coming months resulting in a sharply higher USD/JPY. As usual data releases are unlikely to have a big impact on the JPY this week but if anything, a further decline in consumer confidence, and a negative reading for Q1 GDP, will maintain the pressure for a weaker JPY and more aggressive Bank of Japan (BoJ) action although the BoJ is unlikely to shift policy this week.

Respite for the dollar

Markets are increasingly discounting stronger than expected Q3 earnings.  Further gains in equities and risk appetite may be harder to achieve even if profits continue to be beat expectations, which so far around 80% of Q3 earnings have managed to do. Measures of risk such as the VIX “fear gauge” have highlighted an increasingly risk averse environment into this week.  The negative market tone could continue in the short term.

The USD has found some tentative relief, helped by the drop in equities and profit taking on risk trades.  The fact that the market had become increasingly short USDs as reflected in the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders’ (IMM) report in which aggregate short USD positions increased in the latest week (short USD positions numbered roughly twice the number of long positions), has given plenty of scope for some short covering this week.

The USD has even managed quite convincingly to shake off yet another article on the diversification of USD reserves in China.  The USD index looks set to consolidate its gains over the short term against the background of an up tick in risk aversion.  The USD index will likely remain supported ahead of the main US release this week, Q3 GDP on Thursday, but any rally in the USD is unlikely to be sustainable and will only provide better levels to short the currency.

Given the broad based nature of the reversal in risk sentiment with not only equities dropping but commodities sliding too, it suggests that high beta currencies, those with the highest sensitivity to risk will suffer in the short term.  These include in order of correlation with the VIX index over the past month, from the most to the least sensitive, MXN, AUD, MYR, SGD, NOK, EUR, CAD, INR, ZAR, BRL, TRY and NZD. The main beneficiary according to recent correlation is the USD.

EUR sentiment in particular appears to be weakening at least on the margin as reflected in the latest IMM report which revealed that net long EUR speculative positions have fallen to their lowest level in 6-weeks.  Whether this is due to profit taking as EUR/USD hit 1.50 or realisation that the currency appeared to have gone too far too quickly, the EUR stands on shakier ground this week.  EUR/USD may pull back to near term technical support around 1.4840 and then 1.4725 before long positions are re-established.

Who’s going to follow in Brazil’s footsteps?

Last week saw a sell off in some emerging market currencies and whilst this may simply have been profit taking attributable to some large hedge funds it did coincide with the imposition of a tax on portfolio inflows in Brazil.  The tax dented sentiment as it quickly fuelled speculation that it would be followed elsewhere, especially in countries that had seen rapid FX appreciation.  

The BRL is one of the best performing currencies this year against the USD whilst the stock market has surged on strong capital inflows.  The huge increase in USD liquidity globally and substantial improvement in risk appetite has fuelled strong capital inflows into Brazil especially as the country has proven to be one of the most resilient during the crisis.

Although on the margin the tax will have a negative impact on speculative flows into Brazil it is unlikely to have a lasting impact.  Previous such measures have done little to prevent further appreciation.  The BRL is clearly overvalued by around 25-30 at present, but the tax in itself will not be sufficient to result in a move back to “fair value”. 

At best it may act a temporary break on currency appreciation and could limit the magnitude of further gains in the real but this could be at the cost of distorting resource allocation and market functioning.   The longer term solution is to enhance productivity but this will not help in the interim. The tax may make investors a little more reluctant to pile into Brazilian assets, which is what the authorities will desire but already the BRL is back on its appreciation path suggesting a short lived reaction. 

Other countries that could follow include South Africa, Turkey or South Korea but South Africa has already denied that it has any plans to move in this direction.  In South Korea’s case the central bank has chosen to intervene in currency markets to prevent the further strengthening in the won but that also has implications for sterilizing such flows limiting the extent that intervention can be carried out.    

The bottom line is that the broad based improvement in risk appetite is proving to be a strong driver of capital flows into emerging markets and the reality is that many emerging economies such as Brazil and many in Asia have been much more resilient than feared. 

Although there is clearly a limit on the extent that these countries want to allow their currencies to strengthen versus USD the upward pressure will continue, leading to more FX intervention and potential imposition of taxes or restrictions such as implemented in Brazil.   Despite this the outlook for most emerging currencies remains positive and the authorities will face an uphill struggle. 

Chinese stocks enter bear market

Markets can only be described as fickle as they gyrate back and forth depending on the latest news or earnings report and as a result direction is changing not just daily but also intra-day.  Investors in most asset classes will continue to focus on stocks especially the recently underperforming Chinese equity market (Shanghai A share index) which officially moved into bearish territory after falling by over 20% from its early August high. 

Various reasons for the drop can be cited including regulator’s curbs on the stock market, high valuations, absence of new fund launches, limits on institutional buying,  high level of new accounts adding to volatility, tighter regulations on real estate, etc, but whatever the reason the direction has been clearly downwards and the impact is being felt across markets.

The turnaround in equity markets during Wednesday’s sessions was dramatic and was led by the turnaround in Chinese stocks which dragged other Asian bourses down with it.   This outweighed any positive sentiment from Market positives so far this week including a strong reading for the German August ZEW survey which surpassed forecasts by a large margin.  This followed the extension of the TALF by the Fed, and a jump in the US Empire manufacturing survey at the beginning of the week.  

Aside from weaker equities the usual FX beneficiaries including the dollar and yen strengthened on the back of the Chinese stock rout.   S&P’s affirmation of China’s credit ratings and positive comments from China’s stats office about the economic outlook in the months ahead  failed to support sentiment.  This would have been expected to provide a positive backdrop for Asian markets but Chinese stock market jitters provided a strong headwind to local markets. 

Overall most measures of risk have seen a substantial improvement over the past few months but there is no doubt that nerves are creeping back into the market.   This time the nervousness is coming from China and worryingly it is swamping the effect of any good news on the global economy and earnings.   This may prove to be a blip on the long road to recovery in risk appetite but it is difficult to ignore such a sharp fall in Chinese stocks without looking at the potential contagion to other equity markets.  

On the FX front those currencies that are most correlated with risk aversion such as the Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar, South African rand, Indonesian rupiah, Brazilian real and Mexican peso will gyrate in relation to the moves in risk appetite.   These currencies have had the highest correlations with risk aversion over the past month and in the current environment will come under some pressure at least until risk sentiment changes again, which in this market could happen at any moment and without warning.

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