Positive Data Run Continues

The batch of data releases in Tuesday’s trading session was generally positive. Leading the way was a stronger than expected increase in the UK manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) for December at 58.3 which coming in at a 16-year high. The data gave a boost to GBP though GBP/USD is unlikely to gain much of a foothold above 1.5600.

In the US, factory orders surprisingly jumped 0.7% in November and whilst the data is second tier it does maintain the run of generally upbeat US data. Meanwhile eurozone inflation came in higher than forecast at 2.2% YoY, above the European Central Bank (ECB) target level for the first time in two years. The outcome is unlikely to trigger a response from the ECB especially given that core inflation remains well behaved. After hitting a post CPI release high of 1.3433 EUR/USD is likely to drift lower in the short term.

Separately the Fed FOMC minutes of the December 14 meeting revealed little to surprise. Of note, FOMC members highlighted that the improvement in economic conditions was insufficient to warrant any change to the asset purchase program. The bottom line for the Fed is that the dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability is still not in reach and therefore they will keep the pedal to the floor in terms of policy stimulus. Although a further round of quantitative easing seems unlikely the Fed is likely to stick it out in terms of the $600 billion in planned asset purchases whilst an actual rate hike is unlikely until well into 2012.

Commodity prices dropped sharply overnight with soft commodities and energy prices in particular leading the declines. Commodity currencies fell as a result, with the AUD also impacted by growing worries about the impact of the Queensland floods. Initial estimates suggest that total damage from the flooding could reach AUD 6 billion and as Queensland represents around 19% of Australian GDP, the impact on growth could be significant. Growth could drop by a sharp -0.8% YoY in Q1 GDP. This is based on the assumptions that 40% of all exports will experience a 30% reduction

Today’s data slate in the US will be crucial to provide the final clues to Friday’s December payrolls report. The ADP jobs report, ISM non-manufacturing survey and Challenger job cuts data are all scheduled for release. The run of positive US data will help the USD to trade on a firm footing over the short term but clearer direction will await the outcome of the December jobs report whilst the beginning of the Q4 earnings season next week will also be influential. The exception to USD strength will continue to be Asian currencies where more upside is likely, but I prefer to play this via short EUR/Asian FX than the USD.

Peripheral debt concerns intensify

European peripheral debt concerns have allowed the USD a semblance of support as the EUR/USD pullback appears to have gathered momentum following its post FOMC meeting peak of around 1.4282. The blow out in peripheral bond spreads has intensified, with Greek, Portuguese and Irish 10 year debt spreads against bonds widening by around 290bps, 136bps and 200bps, respectively from around mid October.

The EUR appears to have taken over from the USD, at least for now, as the weakest link in terms of currencies. EUR/USD looks vulnerable to a break below technical support around 1.3732. Aside from peripheral debt concerns US bonds yields have increased over recent days, with the spread between 10-year US and German bonds widening by around 17 basis points in favour of the USD since the beginning of the month.

The correlation between the bond spread and EUR/USD is significant at around 0.76 over the past 3-months, highlighting the importance of yield spreads in the recent move in the USD against some currencies. Similarly high correlations exist for AUD/USD, USD/JPY and USD/CHF.

Data today will offer little direction for markets suggesting that the risk off mood may continue. US data includes the September trade deficit. The data will be scrutinized for the balance with China, especially following the ongoing widening in the bilateral deficit over recent months, hitting a new record of $28 billion in August. Similarly an expected increase in China’s trade surplus will add to the currency tensions between the two countries. FX tensions will be highlighted at the Seoul G20 meeting beginning tomorrow, with criticism of US QE2 gathering steam.

Commodity and Asian currencies are looking somewhat precariously perched in the near term, with AUD/USD verging on a renewed decline through parity despite robust September home loan approvals data released this morning, which revealed a 1.3% gain, the third straight monthly increase.

However, the NZD looks even more vulnerable following comments by RBNZ governor Bollard that the strength of the Kiwi may reduce the need for higher interest rates. As a result, AUD/NZD has spiked and could see a renewed break above 1.3000 today. Asian currencies are also likely to remain on the backfoot today due both to a firmer USD in general but also nervousness ahead of the G20 meeting.

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.

Unloved US Dollar

The USD index is now at its lowest level since May 3 and is showing little sign of turning around. The bulk of USD index weakness overnight came via the EUR and GBP, both of which rose sharply against the USD, with EUR/USD breaching its 90 day moving, hitting a high of 1.2955 and GBP/USD on its way to testing its 200 day moving average, reaching a high of 1.5472. Commodity currencies fared far less positively, perhaps feeling the after effects of the weaker Chinese data this week, with the NZD also dented by weaker than expected inflation data in Q2.

The USD was once again hit by US growth worries. To recap, the US data slate revealed a soft reading for PPI, whilst the July Empire manufacturing index dropped 14.5 points, a far bigger drop than forecast. The Philly Fed index also dropped further in July despite expectations of a small gain. In contrast, June industrial production edged higher, but manufacturing output actually fell. There was a bit of good news in the fact that weekly jobless claims fell more than forecast.

The releases extended the run of weak US data, keeping double-dip fears very much alive. The data have acted to validate the Fed’s cautious growth outlook expressed in the latest FOMC minutes but a double-dip is unlikely. Today’s releases include June CPI, May TIC securities flows, and July Michigan confidence. Another benign inflation report is expected. Consumer confidence is set to slip further against the background of soft data and volatility in equity markets whilst TICS data is forecast to reveal that long term securities flows declined in May compared to the $83 billion inflows registered in April.

The move in the EUR is a making a mockery out of forecasts including my own that had expected renewed downside. The relatively successful Spanish bond auction yesterday helped to ease eurozone sovereign debt concerns further, with a likely strong element of Asian participation. I have still not given up on my EUR negative view given the likelihood of a deteriorating economic outlook in the eurozone and outperfomance of the US economy, but over the short-term the EUR short squeeze may have further to go, with EUR/USD resistance seen at 1.3077.

Equity markets were saved from too much of a beating following the release of better than expected earnings from JP Morgan, a $550mn agreement between Goldman Sachs and the SEC to settle a regulatory case, and news from BP that it has temporarily stemmed the flow of oil from the leak from its Gulf well. Agreement on the US financial reform bill, passed by the Senate yesterday and likely to be signed into law by US President Obama next week, likely helped too.

The tone of the market is likely to be mixed today, with US growth concerns casting a shadow on risk trades. Earnings remain in focus and the big name releases today include BoA, GE and Citigroup but early direction could be negative following news after the US close that Google Inc. profits came in below analysts’ expectations. Data in the US today is unlikely to help sentiment given expectations of more weak outcomes, leaving the USD vulnerable to further selling pressure.

Euro Rally To Fade

It is not an easy time to forecast currencies. Just as many forecasters fought for the accolade of being the most bearish on the EUR and many others were forced to capitulate or risk falling behind the curve, EUR/USD has started to perk up. Similarly, commodity currencies and many emerging market currencies have bounced.

Perhaps the explanation of these moves is merely position adjustments as traders and investors square positions as they keep one eye on the World Cup or maybe its just fatigue after weeks of selling pressure. Either way, the fact that speculative USD market positioning is at a very high level, suggests there is plenty of scope to take profits on long USD positions.

There are various reasons to expect the calm to give way to renewed tensions, however. Public opposition to austerity plans in Europe, added to the prospects for slowing growth as the plans are implemented, in addition to banking sector concerns, suggest that the outlook for the EUR remains downbeat. These factors also point to the prospects of risk aversion rising over the coming weeks, reversing the recent rally in risk currencies.

Further out, the EUR’s travails will not be over quickly and in the wake of the implementation of austerity plans the EUR will struggle from the impact of relatively slower growth in the eurozone compared to the US and other countries. The EUR will continue to remain under pressure even as risk appetite improves and many risk currencies appreciate.

The interruption of risk as an FX determinant is likely to fade towards the end of the year and investors will then go back to differentiating on the basis of relative growth and interest rate dynamics, which will play well for the USD as US growth strengthens.

Relative growth differentials will also bode well for commodity currencies and there will be scope for plenty of upside in the AUD and NZD as growth strengthens. Both countries have benefited from firm demand in Asia and China in particular and this source of support will likely continue to be beneficial.

Funding currencies including JPY and CHF will likely weaken this year against the USD based on the likely improvement in risk appetite later this year. The outlook for the JPY will be particularly interesting in the wake of the change in Prime Minister in Japan, especially given the new PM’s preference for a weaker JPY and reflationary policies. USD/JPY will likely reach 100 by the end of the year.

GBP should not be seen in the same context as the EUR. Although the UK has got its own share of fiscal problems the new government appears to be moving quickly to mollify both investor and ratings agency concerns. The test will come with the reaction of the emergency budget on June 22nd but I suspect that the downside risk to GBP will be limited.

Unlike the EUR which is trading around “fair value”, GBP is highly undervalued. Arguably past GBP weakness puts the UK economy on a stronger recovery footing. Moreover, problems that Europe will face in implementing multi country austerity plans and widening growth divergence, will not be repeated in the UK. Overall, there is likely to be significant outperformance of GBP versus EUR over coming months

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