Central Banks and Governments Act To Combat COVID-19. Will It Be Enough?

In just a few weeks the world has changed dramatically.  What was initially seen as a virus localised in Asia has spread throughout the world with frightening speed.  The shocking destruction that COVID-19 has wrought globally in both health and economic terms will not fade quickly.  The virus is destroying complacency in all areas.  Total and complete lock down is becoming key to arrest the virus’ ascent, but many have yet to change their ways, believing that they will be ok.  How naïve is that!

Governments and central banks are finally coming to grips with the economic and health costs, but also the realisation that even in many developed countries, they are woefully unequipped to deal with the health crisis that is unfolding.  Global policy makers and the public at large has gone from a phase of denial, to outright panic and increasingly into fear, which then brings forth the most aggressive responses.

Unfortunately, the lack of global cohesion amongst policy makers has meant that responses have largely been piecemeal and uncoordinated.  Two of the biggest super powers, the US and China, have despite a now forgotten about Phase 1 trade deal, become increasingly acrimonious in their dealings with each other.  This, at a time when the world is looking for leadership, is proving to be major impediment to dealing with the effects of the virus.

It is not all bad news in term of co-ordination.  Central banks globally appear to be acting in unison, even if accidently, in terms of slashing interest rates, aggressively increasing quantitative easing, flushing the financial system with US dollar liquidity and easing some of the regulatory burden on banks.  This has helped to improve market functioning, which increasingly appeared to be breaking down over recent weeks.  It may not however, prevent further pressure on asset markets given the destruction in economic  activity globally.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.  Governments are now stepping up to the plate.  Massive fiscal stimulus plans are being ramped up around the world.  G7 economies have pledged to do “whatever is necessary” and to co-ordinate actions though much has been un coordinated.  US lawmakers are currently deliberating on a stimulus package worth over a $1tn though this could rise significantly in the weeks ahead, Germany is planning to create a EUR 500bn bailout fund, and the UK has announced an “unprecedented” multi billion pound package of measures.  These are but a few of the various stimulus measures being undertaken globally.

China has yet to announce a major stimulus package, but has instead opted for more incremental measures as its economy begins to recover following a major lockdown.  However, just as China’s supply constraints are easing, demand is weakening sharply as economies globally shut down.  The implication is that China’s recovery will not be a quick one either.  More stimulus is likely.  Recent reports suggest China will step up special bond issuance for infrastructure spending, but more is likely.

Overall, the economic shock is just beginning as the health shock is intensifying.  We will need to brace for more pain in the weeks and months ahead.  We can only hope that the measures announced so far and yet to be announced alongside with strict adherence to health recommendations will be sufficient to prevent deeper and longer lasting damage.  The jury is still out.

Euro fails too hold on to gains

Any improvement in sentiment following the USD liquidity support announcement by various central banks last week is already filtering away against the background of European Union (EU) officials’ failure to make any headway at the Ecofin meeting over the weekend, a delay in the approval of the next bailout tranche for Greece and ongoing collateral dispute between Greece and Finland. On top of all of this German Chancellor Merkel suffered a further setback in regional elections over the weekend.

Greece will remain in focus this week and markets will look for signs that the country is back on track on its austerity plans and its next loan tranche. Prime Minister Papandreou cancelled a trip to the US while the Greek cabinet are apparently deciding on new fiscal measures. Attention will turn to a teleconference today from the Greek Finance Minister with EU and IMF officials.

Speculative sentiment for the EUR has already soured further and according to the latest CFTC IMM report, positioning in EUR is at its lowest since the end of June 2010. EUR/USD will continue to look very vulnerable having already dropped sharply from a high of around 1.3899 in Asian morning trading as the bad weekend news hit the currency. EUR/USD will find some technical support just below 1.3500 this week but any upside is set to prove limited unless some concrete announcements are delivered relating to Greece over coming days.

In contrast to the EUR, USD speculative appetite has turned net long for the first time since July 2010. The extended Fed FOMC meeting will help to dictate USD sentiment as markets wait for further measures to stimulate the economy. The Federal Reserve has already committed to hold rates steady until at least mid 2013 and the extended two day meeting this week will likely discuss further options. However, more quantitative easing (QE3) appears unlikely at this stage while an ‘Operation Twist’ type approach is more probable. The USD will benefit from a lack of further quantitative easing but this is largely already priced in.

Edging Towards A European Deal For Greece

The momentum towards some form of agreement at the Special EU Summit today is growing, with French and German leaders reaching a “joint position on Greece’s debt situation”. Details of this position are still unknown, however. EUR has found support as expectations of a positive outcome intensify.

However, given that positive news is increasingly being priced in, and the market is becoming increasingly long, upside EUR potential will be limited even in the wake of a comprehensive agreement. A break above EUR/USD resistance around 1.4282 would bring in sight the next key resistance level around 1.4375 but this where the rally in EUR/USD is set to be capped.

Prospects of a major US debt default or at the least a government shutdown appear to be receding as the US administration has indicated some willingness to opt for a short term increase in the US borrowing limit to give more time for a bigger deficit reduction deal to be passed by Congress. Meanwhile, there will be further news on the deficit reduction plans put forward by the “gang of six” US senators, with a press conference scheduled for later today.

Debt ceiling negotiations are likely to be the main focus of market attention, with the Philly Fed manufacturing survey and weekly jobless claims relegated to the background. A speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke is unlikely to deliver anything new today. The USD is likely to be on the back foot given expectations of a deal in Europe and improved risk appetite but we expect losses to be limited.

The JPY continues to defy my bearish expectations. Over recent days the US yield advantage over Japan in terms of 2Y bonds dropped to multi-year lows below 20bps. Given the high correlation between USD/JPY and yield differentials, this has corresponded with the fall below 80.00.

Expectations of JPY weakness versus USD is highly dependent on the US – Japan yield gap widening over coming months. For this to happen it will need concerns about the US economy and expectations of more Fed asset purchases to dissipate, something that may not happen quickly given the rash of disappointing US data releases lately.

GBP found itself on the front foot following the release of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee minutes, which were less dovish than anticipated. They also revealed that the BoE expects inflation to peak higher and sooner than previously expected. However, the fact that the overall tone was similar to the last set of minutes meant there was little follow through in terms of GBP.

Further direction will come from June retail sales data today and forecasts of a bounce in sales will likely help allay concerns about a downturn in consumer spending. Nonetheless, GBP is still likely to struggle to break through resistance around 1.6230 versus USD.

Risk Aversion Creeps Higher

The USD index has dropped by around 17% since June 2010 high and despite a slight bounce this week it is unlikely to mark the beginning of a sustained turnaround. Nonetheless, I would caution about getting carried away with positioning for USD weakness. Whilst an imminent recovery looks unlikely the risk/reward of shorting the USD is becoming increasingly unfavourable.

Until then Federal Reserve comments will be watched closely for clues on policy and there are plenty of Fed speakers this week including a speech by Boston Fed’s Rosengren today and Fed Chairman Bernanke tomorrow. The USD will also gain some direction from jobs data and markets will be able to gauge more clues for Friday’s non-farm payrolls data , with the release of the April ADP employment report today.

The EUR is one currency that has suffered this week. News that Portugal’s caretaker government has reached an agreement with the European Union / International Monetary Fund on a bailout of as much as EUR 78 billion has so far been greeted with a muted response. EUR attention is still very much focussed on the ECB meeting tomorrow and prospects of a hawkish press statement suggest that EUR/USD downside will be limited, with support seen around 1.4755.

The JPY has strengthened by around 5% versus USD since its 6th April USD/JPY high around 85.53, confounding expectations that Japan’s FX intervention following the county’s devastating earthquake marked a major turning point in the currency. A combination of narrowing interest rate differentials with the US (2 year US/Japan yield differentials have narrowed by around 20bps in the past month), strong capital inflows to Japan (net bond and equity flows in the last four weeks have increased to their highest this year), and rising risk aversion have all played their part in driving the JPY higher.

As a result USD/JPY is fast approaching the psychologically important level of 80, a level that if breached will likely lead to FX intervention. Although Golden Week holidays in Japan this week suggest that JPY liquidity may be quite thin, Japanese authorities are likely to remain resistant to further gains in the JPY, likely using thinning liquidity to their advantage.

Despite the JPY’s recent strength speculative positioning over the past four weeks has remained net short JPY, whilst Japanese margin traders have also increased their long USD/JPY bets, suggesting that these classes of investors are not to blame for the JPY’s appreciation. This suggests that FX intervention may not be as successful given that the market is already short JPY.

Given the risk of intervention on USD/JPY, the CHF appears to be an easier choice for safe haven demand against the background of rising risk aversion. The currency has risen to a record high against the USD, gaining around 8.3% so far this year. Given the hints of higher interest rates by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) and resilience economic performance, downside risks for CHF are limited at present unless risk appetite improves sharply. Further gains are likely with USD/CHF likely to test the 0.8570 support level over the short-term.

Temporary relief for US Dollar

Downbeat US economic news in the form of a widening US trade deficit, increase in jobless claims and bigger than expected increase in top line PPI inflation contrasted with upbeat earnings from Google. Google shares surged over 9% in after hours trading but US data tarnished the risk on mood of markets, leaving commodity prices and equities lower and the USD firmer. Higher US Treasury yields, especially in the longer end following a poor 30 year auction, helped the USD to push higher.

The USD’s trend is undoubtedly lower but profit taking may be the order of the day ahead of a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke on monetary policy later today and the release of the highly anticipated US Treasury Report in which China may be named as a currency manipulator. A speech by the Minneapolis Fed’s Kocherlatoka (non voter) this morning sounded downbeat, even suggesting that “Fed asset purchases may have a muted effect”. Despite such comments the Fed appears likely to embark on QE2 at its 3 November meeting.

Today is also a key data for US data releases with September data on US retail sales, and CPI and October data on Michigan confidence and Empire manufacturing scheduled for release. Retail sales are likely to look reasonable, with headline sales expected to rise 0.5% and ex-autos sales expected up 0.4%. The gauges of both manufacturing and consumer confidence are also likely to show some recovery whilst inflation pressures will remain benign. Given the uncertainty about the magnitude of QE the Fed will undertake in November, the CPI data will have added importance.

The US trade will likely have resulted in an intensification of expectations that China will be labelled as a currency manipulator in the US Treasury report later today. The August trade deficit with China widened $28.04 billion, the largest on record. At the least it will give further ammunition to the US Congress who are spoiling for a fight ahead of mid-term congressional elections, whilst heightening tensions ahead of the November G20 meeting.

Indeed currency frictions continue to increase although “currency war” seems to be an extreme label for it. Nonetheless, Singapore’s move yesterday to widen the SGD band highlighted the pressure that many central banks in the region are coming under to combat local currency strength. Singapore’s move may be a monetary tightening but it is also a tacit recognition of the costs of intervening to weaken or at least limit the strength of currencies in the region. To have maintained the previous band would have required ongoing and aggressive FX intervention which has its own costs in terms of sterilization.

This problem will remain as long as the USD remains weak and this in turn will depend on US QE policy and bond yields. A lot of negativity is priced into the USD and market positioning has become quite extreme suggesting that it will not all be a downhill bet for the currency. Many currencies breached or came close to testing key psychological and technical levels yesterday, with EUR/USD breaching 1.4000, GBP/USD breaking 1.6000, USD/CAD breaking below parity and AUD/USD coming close to testing parity. Some reversal is likely today, but any relief for the USD is likely to prove temporary.

Contrasting Stance

Despite some recent Fed speakers putting doubts into the minds of the many now looking for the Fed to embark on QE2 in November, the minutes of the 21 September FOMC meeting gave the green light to the commencement of asset purchases next month. Although there is clearly no unanimity within the FOMC the majority favour further easing. Incremental data dependent asset purchases will be the most likely path.

The minutes leave the USD vulnerable to further declines but extreme short USD positioning suggest that there is plenty of risk of short covering and more likely we are probably set for a period of consolidation over coming weeks before the USD resumes its decline.

Unlike the Fed, BoJ and BoE, which remain in easing mode the ECB is already veering towards an exit strategy, albeit one that is unlikely to take effect for some time. Hawkish comments by the ECB’s Weber overnight managed to give a lift to the EUR in the wake of a further widening in interest rate differentials between the eurozone and US. Indeed, interest rate differentials (2nd contract futures) are at the widest since Feb 2009, a factor that is providing plenty of underlying support for the EUR.

Further out the follow through on the EUR will depend on whether markets believe Weber’s stance is credible. Germany’s economy is doing well but it is highly likely that Southern European officials would oppose any premature tightening in policy given the parlous state of their economies. The stronger EUR will also do some damage to growth, with its recent appreciation acting as a de facto monetary tightening.

Despite the positive influence of Weber’s comments short-term technical indicators show that the trend in EUR is vulnerable, with clear signs of negative divergence as the spot rate is still trending higher whilst the relative strength indices (RSI) are trending lower. Moreover, EUR speculative positioning is at its highest in a year, albeit still well of its all time highs. Speculators may be reluctant to build on longs in the near term. A clean and sustained break above EUR/USD 1.4000 level still looks like a stretch too far though any downside is likely to be limited to strong support around 1.3895.

Unlike the perception that the ECB is highly unlikely to follow the Fed in a path of QE2 the policy stance of the BoE is far more uncertain, a fact that continues to weigh on GBP, especially against the EUR. Recent data in the UK has played into the hands of the doves, with housing market activity and prices coming under renewed pressure, retail sales surveys revealing some deterioration and consumer confidence as revealed in the Nationwide survey overnight, weakening further.

BoE MPC member Miles summarized the situation by highlighting that the UK faces “some big risks” and even hinted that the BoE may “come to use QE”. UK jobs data today is unlikely to give any support to sentiment for GBP although as per its recent trend GBP is likely to remain resilient against the USD whilst remaining under pressure against the EUR, with a move to resistance around EUR/GBP 0.8946 on the cards in the short-term

Money Printing

It was a day of surprises on Tuesday as the Bank of Japan (BoJ) not only created a JPY 5 trillion fund to buy domestic assets including JGBs but also cut interest rates to zero. Expect more measures to come in the fight against a stronger JPY and deflation. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) also surprised markets by leaving its policy rate unchanged at 4.5% delaying another rate hike yet again despite expectations by many including ourselves of a 25bps rate hike.

The easier policy stance from the BoJ and RBA taken together with firmer service sector purchasing managers indices – including the September US ISM non-manufacturing survey, which came in at 53.2 from 51.5 – gave risk appetite a solid lift. Even the AUD which dropped sharply following the RBA decision, managed to recoup all of its losses and more overnight.

Japan’s decision could have set the ball rolling for a fresh round of quantitative easing (QE) from central banks as they combat sluggish growth prospects ahead and ongoing deflation risks. The US Fed as has been much speculated on and the Bank of England (BoE) are likely candidates for more QE. Whilst the European Central Bank (ECB) is unlikely to adopt such measures there are reports that board members are split over the timing of exit policy. The BoE decision on Thursday may provoke more interest than usual against this background although the Bank is unlikely to act so quickly. The Fed on the other hand appears to be gearing up for a November move.

Growing prospects of fresh QE looks likely to provide further impetus for risk trades. Notably commodity prices jumped higher, with the CRB commodities index at its highest level since the beginning of the year. Although there is plenty of attention on the gold price which yet a fresh record high above $1340 per troy ounce as well as tin which also hit new highs, the real stars were soft commodities including the likes of sugar, coffee and orange juice up sharply.

The main loser once again is the US dollar and this beleaguered currency appears to be finding no solace, with any rally continuing to be sold into, a pattern that is set to continue. Although arguably a lot is in the price in terms of QE expectations, clearly the fact that the USD continues to drop (alongside US bond yields) highlights that a lot does not mean that all is in the price.

The USD is set to remain under pressure against most currencies ahead of anticipated Fed QE. The fact that the USD has already dropped sharply suggests a less pronounced negative USD reaction once the Fed starts buying assets but the currency is still set to retain a weaker trajectory once the Fed USD printing press kicks into life again as a simple case of growing global USD supply will push the currency weaker.

USD weakness will only spur many central banks including across Asia to intervene more aggressively to prevent their respective currencies from strengthening. A “currency war” looms, a fact that could provoke some strong comments at this weekend’s IMF and World Bank meetings. In the meantime intervention by central banks will imply more reserves recycling, something that will continue to benefit currencies such as EUR and AUD.

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