Hopes run high ahead of major central bank decisions

Expectations are running high that central bankers will deliver on further policy steps at the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank and Bank of England meetings this week. Indeed, following strong hints by ECB President Draghi last week, which provoked a rally in global markets, there are high hopes that the ECB restarts its bond buying programme.

Opposition by Germany’s Bundesbank could result in disappointment, however. A meeting today between Draghi and Bundesbank president Weidmann will shed further light on the issue. Also on the table is the potential for the ESM bailout fund to be given a banking licence though this seems unlikely any time soon. Given the rally in risk assets at the end of last week, any lack of action by policy makers this week will provoke significant disappointment.

Similarly a run of weaker US and UK data has led to growing hopes that the Fed and BoE will also ease policy further on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. While recent press speculation suggests that the Fed is edging closer to further balance sheet expansion the Fed FOMC may want to wait for further news on the economic front before embarking on more quantitative easing.

Meanwhile, the BoE appears to be edging towards further easing too, but rather than more QE a rate cut is looking like the preferred option. I suspect that such action at this week’s monetary policy committee (MPC) meeting is unlikely, however. Adding to the drama of this week’s events is the US July jobs report at the end of this week and yet another lacklustre report is expected, with consensus forecasts for a 100k increase in jobs.

Currency markets are likely to settle into ranges ahead of the key events above. The USD lost a fair bit of ground over recent sessions but further direction will await the ECB and Fed meetings. EUR/USD looks firmly settled above support around 1.2241 but upside traction will be limited until there is further clarification from the ECB. I suspect that last week’s short squeeze has run its course, with a further drop in peripheral Eurozone bond yields required to drive the EUR higher.

Asian currencies look well supported in the near term ahead of the major policy decisions. The SGD and KRW have led gains over the past week and their high degree of sensitivity to risk suggests that they should continue to outperform. The INR has also edged higher on the back of firming risk appetite but much will depend on the outcome of the RBI meeting tomorrow. According to my quantitative models the PHP and TWD will underperform.

RBA on hold, RBI hikes rates

News of the death of Osama Bin Laden gave the USD a lift and its gains have extended for a second day. Extreme short market positioning as well as increasing risk aversion (perhaps due to worries about retaliation following Bin Laden’s death) have helped the USD.

However, the boost to the USD could be short-lived in the current environment in which it remains the preferred global funding currency. Indeed, the fact that US bond yields have dropped sharply over recent weeks continues to undermine the USD against various currencies.

The USD firmed despite the US ISM manufacturing index dropping slightly, albeit from a high level. The survey provided some useful clues to Friday’s US jobs report, with the slight decline in the employment component of the ISM survey to 62.7 consistent with a 200k forecast for April payrolls.

Ahead of the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting on Thursday hawkish rhetoric from new Council member and Bundesbank chief Weidmann (replacing Weber) and more reassurances from Greek and EU officials that there will be no debt restructuring or haircut on the country’s debt has helped the EUR although it is notable that it could not sustain a foot hold above 1.49. Eurozone bond yields have risen by around 20bps compared to US yields over the past month, a fact that suggests that the EUR may not fall far in the short-term.

USD/JPY is trading dangerously close to levels that may provoke FX intervention by the Japanese authorities. General USD weakness fuelled a drop in USD/JPY which has been exacerbated by a rise in risk aversion over recent days (higher risk aversion usually plays in favour of a stronger JPY). The biggest determinant of the drop in USD/JPY appears to a narrowing in bond yields (2-year bond yields have narrowed by around 20bps over the past month) largely due to a rally in US bonds.

Unsurprisingly the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left its cash rate on hold at 4.75%. The accompanying statement showed little inclination to hike rates anytime soon, with credit growth noted as modest, pressure from a stronger exchange rate on the traded sector and temporary prices shocks which are expected to dissipate. The only indication that rates will eventually increase is the view that longer term inflation is expected to move higher.

I look for further rate hikes over coming months even with the AUD at such a high level. AUD has lost a bit of ground after hitting a high just above 1.10 against the USD and on the margin the statement is slightly negative for AUD. A slightly firmer USD overall and stretched speculative positioning, with IMM AUD positions close to their all time high, points to some downside risks in the short-term.

In contrast India’s central bank the RBI hiked interest rates by more than many expected. Both the repo and reverse repo rates were raised by 50bps, with the central bank governor highlighting renewed inflation risks in his statement. The decision reveals a shift in RBI rhetoric to an even more hawkish bias in the wake of rising inflation pressures, which should be beneficial to the rupee.

G7 Intervention Hits Japanese Yen

One could imagine that it was not difficult for Japan to garner G7 support for joint intervention in currency markets given the terrible disaster that has hit the country. Given expectations of huge repatriation flows into Japan and a possible surge in the JPY Japanese and G7 officials want to ensure currency stability and lower volatility. Moreover, as noted in the G7 statement today officials wanted to show their solidarity with Japan, with intervention just one means of showing such support.

Although Japanese Finance Minister Noda stated that officials are not targeting specific levels, the psychologically important level of 80.00 will likely stick out as a key level to defend. Note that the last intervention took place on 15 September 2010 around 83.00 and USD/JPY was trading below this level even before the earthquake struck. The amount of intervention then was around JPY 2.1 trillion and at least this amount was utilised today. The last joint G7 intervention took place in September 2000.

Unlike the one off FX intervention in September 2010, further intervention is likely over coming days and weeks by Japan and the Federal Reserve, Bank of France, Bundesbank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and other G7 nations. The timing of the move today clearly was aimed at avoiding a further dramatic drop in USD/JPY, with Thursday’s illiquid and stop loss driven drop to around 76.25 adding to the urgency for intervention. USD/JPY will find some resistance around the March high of 83.30, with a break above this level likely to help maintain the upside momentum.

The JPY has become increasingly overvalued over recent years as reflected in a variety of valuation measures. Prior to today’s intervention the JPY was over 40% overvalued against the USD according to the Purchasing Power Parity measure, a much bigger overvaluation than any other Asian and many major currencies. The trade weighted JPY exchange rate has appreciated by around 56% since June 2007. In other words there was plenty of justification for intervention even before the recent post earthquake surge in JPY

Although Japanese exporters had become comfortable with USD/JPY just above the 80 level over recent months, whilst many have significant overseas operations, the reality is that a sustained drop in USD/JPY inflicts significant pain on an economy and many Japanese exporters at a time when export momentum is slowing. Japan’s Cabinet office’s annual survey in March revealed that Japanese companies would remain profitable if USD/JPY is above 86.30. Even at current levels it implies many Japanese companies profits are suffering.

Upward pressure on the JPY will remain in place, suggesting a battle in prospect for the authorities to weaken the currency going forward. Round 1 has gone to the Japanese Ministry of Finance and G7, but there is still a long way to go, with prospects of huge repatriation flows likely to make the task of weakening the JPY a difficult one. The fact that there is joint intervention will ensure some success, however and expect more follow up by other G7 countries today to push the JPY even weaker over the short-term.

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