Fed does the Twist, markets do the Shake

Although it was widely expected the Federal Reserve’s decision to implement a fresh version of Operation Twist together with a downbeat assessment of the economy came as a disappointment to equities and risk assets in general. The only surprise was the larger size of the operation at $400 billion.

Moody’s downgrade of three US banks added to the malaise as US equities dropped sharply, commodities slid, longer term Treasuries rallied whilst shorter term bonds dropped. The USD registered broad gains both on the back of the fact that no more quantitative easing was announced and due to a shift away from risk assets. At least there was no more negative news out of the eurozone as talks between the Troika (ECB, IMF, EC) and Greek officials continue on the next tranche of the bailout.

Markets will continue to digest the Fed’s outcome today and the negative tone will likely filter through markets today. There is little on the data front to result in a shift in this tone. In the US data includes weekly jobless claims while in Europe attention will be on manufacturing and service sector confidence measures.

While the potential for a positive outcome to talks in Greece may provide a short term boost to sentiment the overwhelming tone is likely to remain negative especially as Operation Twist is unlikely to change the dynamic of a weak growth trajectory for the US and developed economies over the coming months. Against this background, selling risk assets on rallies remains the preferred option.

The USD will continue to look firmest against high beta emerging market currencies in the current environment. Currencies in this group are those that have the highest correlations with risk (as m measured by my in house risk barometer) over the past 3 months including CAD, ZAR, TRY, INR, MXN, ARS & RUB. In contrast currencies that also have high correlations but actually strengthen as risk aversion increases are CNY and JPY.

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.

US dollar under pressure

The US dollar has come under major pressure, with the US dollar index (a composite of the dollar against various currencies) falling to 4-month lows.   The weakness of the US dollar has been broad based and even the Japanese yen which normally weakens as risk appetite improves, has strengthened against the USD.  The euro has also taken advantage of dollar weakness despite ongoing concerns about the European economy. The main source of pressure on the dollar is the improvement in market appetite for risk.  

As I noted in a previous post, “What drives currencies?” risk appetite has been one of the biggest drivers of currencies in the past year.   This has pushed other drivers such as interest rate differentials into the background.   In the post I also stated that we would all have to watch equity markets to determine where currencies will move, with stronger equities implying a weaker dollar.

The dollar looks particularly sickly at present and it is difficult to go against the trend.  It will need a major reversal in equity markets or risk appetite to see a renewed strengthening in the dollar.   Although I still think it will require some positive news as opposed to less negative news to keep the momentum in equity markets going (see previous post) the prospects for a stronger dollar remain limited.   

Over the coming months the dollar is set to weaken further and those currencies that have suffered most at the hands of a strong dollar will benefit the most as risk appetite improves.  It is no coincidence that the UK pound has strengthened sharply over recent days, and this is likely to continue given its past undervaluation.  Other currencies which were badly beaten such as the Australian dollar and Canadian dollar will also continue to make up ground, helped too by a rebound in commodity prices.   

Aside from improving risk appetite the dollar may also come under growing pressure from the Fed’s quantitative easing policy, especially if inflation expectations in the US rise relative to other countries as a consequence of this policy.  It will be crucial that the Fed removes QE in a timely manner and many dollar investors will be watching the Fed’s exit strategy closely.  

Although the US trade deficit is showing improvement another concern for dollar investors is the burgeoning fiscal deficit.   The US administration revised up its estimate for the FY 2009 deficit to $1.84 trillion or about 12.9% of GDP, highlighting the dramatic deterioration in the US fiscal position.  Concerns about this were highlighted in an FT article warning about the risk to US credit ratings.

The deterioration in dollar sentiment has also been reflected in speculative market positioning, which has seen speculative appetite for the dollar drop to its lowest level in several months. The bottom line is that any recovery in the dollar over the coming weeks is likely to be limited offering investors to take fresh short positions as investors continue to move away from holding the dollar.

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