India braced for a new era under Modi

Dear readers, it’s been a long while since I wrote a blog post and I must apologize for their absence. I have left my job at Credit Agricole CIB and will be moving from Hong Kong to Singapore to work for another bank. I am currently on gardening leave and am therefore not following market developments anywhere near as closely as I was until I start my new job at the end of June. Nonetheless, given the major events in India over recent days, with the victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections, I felt compelled to write something.

Firstly the fact that the BJP won a landslide victory with 282 seats out of a total of 543 ensures that for the first time in decades the government in India does not have to be encumbered by a wide range of political beliefs and views. The consequent inaction a wide ranging coalition would have entailed would lead to renewed policy paralysis. As it is the BJP can form a majority government, with Modi able to emulate the successful reform policies he implemented in his home state of Gujarat while he was Chief Minister there. Being a Gujarati I can’t help but be caught up in the euphoria of what this could mean for India.

In contrast the Congress party and its leaders from the Nehru/Ghandi dynasty suffered a massive defeat, not only throwing them into opposition but shoving them to the margins in terms of political strength. Admittedly there has been a lot of money that has poured into Indian stocks and bonds over recent months but this does not necessarily mean that a BJP majority was priced in. On my last visit to India many of the clients I met actually thought that Modi may have been ousted while it was not felt that he and the BJP would be able to gain an outright majority. In the event he proved doubters wrong. In other words there is still plenty of scope for upside for the rupee and Indian stocks and bonds.

Now before we all get too excited a dose of reality needs to be brought into the mix. The “Gujarat model” was one of rapid improvements in infrastructure, reduction in bureaucracy and red tape and an encouragement of foreign investment. Clearly nothing in India is going to change overnight and adapting the model implemented in Gujarat, a state of 60 million people, to a country of over 1 billion people will not be easy. There will also be risks in terms of social tensions given the more right wing views of Modi and his party. Nonetheless, the strong mandate given to Modi by the electorate was for tough reform and this is what Modi and his style of government is best at.

There is little to time for a Modi honeymoon. The country’s bloated fiscal deficit, persistent current account deficits, elevated inflation, high indebtedness in some sectors, job market rigidities, inconsistent tax policy and masses of red tape and corruption, are only a few of the issues to contend with in a country with a wide spectrum of socio economic standing and religious views. Modi may also have to show some new secular credentials to ensure that his policies do not fuel sectarian tensions, something that may not come easy.

The hope among Indians and foreign investors is that Modi can once again push the economy back onto its fight and move to growth rates closer to 8-9% rather than 4-5% that the country under Congress rule has settled into. The selection of officials especially the Finance Minister will give important policy clues while ensuring that the well regarded central bank governor Rajan retains his post will help solidify confidence. Having been disappointed so many times in the past it is tough not to be skeptical but it may finally be time to throw caution to the wind and give Modi the benefit of the doubt. If anyone is up to the job it appears that Modi has the right credentials for it.

Risk rally losing steam

The rally in risk assets is losing its momentum, with US stock markets failing to extend gains following a four day rally while US Treasury yields continued their ascent in the wake of Fed Chairman Yellen’s testimony highlighting no deviation from tapering. Her testimony to the Senate will be delayed today while US data in the form of retail sales is likely to register a soft outcome. Sentiment was boosted overnight by strong Chinese trade data in January and the approval by the US Congress allowing a suspension of the debt limit, a far cry from the major saga that took place last time the debt ceiling was about to be breached.

Additionally Eurozone markets will find some support from comments by European Central Bank board member Coeure who noted that the central banks is “very seriously” considering negative deposit rates. His view may be supported by the release of the ECB monthly bulletin today and Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF). Coeure’s comments undermined the EUR however, while in contrast sharp upward revisions to growth forecasts by the Bank of England in its Quarterly Inflation Report boosted GBP. Suffice to say, EUR/GBP dropped like a stone and looks set to remain under downward pressure.

Risk appetite remains fragile

Fortunately for the USD the situation in the eurozone has become so severe that the problems in the US are all but being ignored. Even in the US, attention on the nomination of the Republican presidential candidate has over shadowed the looming deadline for an agreement on medium term deficit reduction measures.

The Joint Select Committee on deficit reduction is due to submit a report to Congress by November 23 and a final package would be voted on by December 23. A lack of agreement would trigger automatic deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion, a proportion of which would take place in 2012. If this is the case it could potentially tip the economy into recession, necessitating QE3 and consequently a weaker USD.

Reports that the eurozone could fall apart at the seams as countries exit have shaken confidence, yet the EUR has managed to hold above the psychologically important 1.35 level. The strong reluctance of the European Central Bank (ECB) to embark on unsterilized bond purchases and to act as lender of the last resort, suggests that the crisis could continue to brew for a long while to come.

Nonetheless, the EUR found a semblance of support from news that former ECB vice-president Papademos was named new Prime Minister of Greece, the ECB was reported to be a strong buyer of peripheral debt, Italy’s debt auction was not as bad as feared, affirmation of the EFSF’s AAA rating by Moody’s and France’s AAA rating by S&P (following an erroneous report earlier). EUR/USD remains a sell on ralliesup to resistance around 1.3871, with initial resistance around the 1.3665 level.

The underlying pressure over the near term is for further JPY strength in the face of rising risk aversion and a narrowing in the US yield advantage over Japan. Given that the situation in the eurozone remains highly fluid as well as tense, with little sign of resolution on the horizon, risk aversion is set to remain elevated. Moreover, yield differentials have narrowed sharply and the US 2-year yield advantage over Japan is less than 10bps at present.

Against this background it is not surprising that the Japanese authorities are reluctant to intervene aggressively although there are reports that Japan has been conducting secret interventions over recent weeks. However, given that speculative and margin trading net JPY positioning have dropped significantly the impact of further JPY intervention may be less potent. In the meantime USD/JPY will likely edge towards a break below 77.00.

Swiss officials have continued to jawbone against CHF strength, with the country’s Economy Minister stating that the currency remains massively overvalued especially when valued against purchasing power parity. Such comments should be taken at face value but the CHF is unlikely to embark on a weaker trend any time soon.

Although the EUR/CHF floor at 1.20 has held up well while the CHF has lost some its appeal as a safe haven the deterioration in the situation in the eurozone suggests that the CHF will not weaken quickly.

Ratings rampage hits Euro

Both the data flow and market liquidity will be thin over the last couple of weeks of the year. After a bashing over much of H2 2010 it looks as though the USD will end the year in strong form having risen by over 6% since its early November low. In contrast the EUR is struggling having found no support from the meeting of European Union officials at the end of last week in which they agreed to a permanent sovereign debt resolution after 2013 but failed to agree on expanding the size of the bailout fund (EFSF). Similarly there was no traction towards a common euro bond. EUR/USD is now verging on its 200-day moving average around 1.3102, a break of which could see a drop to around 1.2960.

The failure to enlarge the size of the EFSF was disappointing given worries that it is perceived to be insufficient to cope with the bailout of larger eurozone countries if needed. It also highlight that the burden on the European Central Bank (ECB) to prop up eurozone bond markets until confidence improves. The increase in the size of ECB capital from EUR 5.8 billion to EUR 10.8 billion will help in this respect. Such support was clearly needed last week following the rampage across Europe by ratings agencies culminating in Moody’s five notch downgrade of Ireland’s credit ratings, surprising because of its severity rather than the downgrade itself. Ireland’s ratings are now just two notches above junk status and the negative outlook could mean more to come.

It was not just Ireland’s ratings that came under scrutiny. Ireland’s multi notch downgrade followed Moody’s decision to place Greece and Spain on review for a possible downgrade whilst S&P revised Belgium’s outlook to negative. Unsurprisingly peripheral debt markets came under renewed pressure as a result outweighing positive news in the form of strong flash eurozone PMI readings and firm German IFO business confidence survey. EUR did not escape and sentiment for the currency remains weak, with CFTC IMM speculative positioning data revealing a fourth straight week of net EUR short positioning in the week to 14th December.

In contrast, sentiment for the US economy continues to improve. Congress’ swift passage of President Obama’s fiscal plan will help to shore up confidence in US recovery. Data this week will be broadly positive too. On Wednesday, US Q3 GDP data is likely to be upwardly revised to a 2.8% QoQ annualized rate. Durable goods orders excluding transportation are set to increase by a healthy 2.0% (Thu) whilst both existing (Wed) and new (Thu) home sales will reveal rebounds in November following a drop in the previous month.

In the UK the main highlight is the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes. Another three way split is expected but this should not cause more than a ripple in FX markets. GBP/USD has slipped over recent days but there appears to be little other than general USD strength responsible for this. The currency pair looks vulnerable to a drop below 1.5500, with 1.5405 seen as the next support level. On balance, the USD will be in good form this week although the drop in US bond yields at the end of last week may take some of the wind out of its sails.

FX Tension

On September 22 1985 the governments of France, West Germany, Japan, US and UK signed the Plaza Accord which agreed to sharply weaken the USD. At this time it was widely agreed that the USD was overly strong and needed to fall sharply and consequently these countries engineered a significant depreciation of the USD.

It is ironic that 25 years later governments are once again intervening in various ways and that the USD is once again facing a precipitous decline as the Fed moves towards implementing further quantitative easing. This time central banks are acting unilaterally, however, and there is little agreement between countries. For instance Japan’s authorities found no help from the Fed or any other central bank in its recent actions to buy USD/JPY.

So far Japan’s FX interventions have been discreet after the initial USD/JPY buying on 15 September. The fact that Japan is less inclined to advertise its FX intervention comes as little surprise given the intensifying pressure from the US Congress on China for not allowing its currency, the CNY to strengthen. Tensions have deepened over recent weeks and the backing of a bill last week by an important Congressional committee to allow US companies to seek tariffs on Chinese imports suggests that the situation has taken a turn for the worse.

The softly softly approach to Japan’s FX intervention and US/China friction reflects the fact that unlike in 1985 we may be entering a period in which currency and in turn trade tensions are on the verge of intensifying sharply against the background of subdued global economic recovery.

The Fed’s revelation that it is moving closer to implementing further quantitative easing has shifted the debate to when QE2 occurs rather than if, with a November move moving into focus. Clearly the USD took the news negatively and will likely remain under pressure for a prolonged period as the simple fact of more USD supply weighs heavily on the currency. Markets will be able to garner more clues to the timing of QE2, with a plethora of Fed speakers on tap over coming days.

This week the US economic news will be downbeat, with September consumer and manufacturing confidence surveys likely to register declines, with consumer sentiment weighed down by the weakness in job market conditions. Personal income and spending will also be of interest and gains are expected for both. There will be plenty of attention on the core PCE deflator given that further declines could give clues to the timing of QE2.

Attention in Europe will centre on Wednesday’s recommendations for legislation on “economic governance” from the European Commission. Proposed penalties for fiscal indiscipline may include withholding of funding and/or voting restrictions but such measures would be politically contentious. Measures to enforce fiscal discipline ought to be positive for markets given the renewed tensions in peripheral bond markets in the eurozone.

The EUR was a major outperformer last week benefiting from intensifying US QE speculation and will set its sights on technical resistance (20 April high) around 1.3523 in the short-term. Notably EUR speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time this year according to the CFTC IMM data, reflecting the sharp shift in speculative appetite for the currency over recent weeks. The EUR has been surprisingly resilient to renewed sovereign debt concerns and similarly softer data will not inflict much damage to the currency this week.

No Let Up in USD Pressure

At the end of a momentous week for currency markets it’s worth taking stock of how things stand. Much uncertainty remains about the global growth outlook, especially with regard to the US economy, potential for a double-dip and further Fed quantitative easing. Although there is little chance of QE2 being implemented at next week’s Fed FOMC meeting speculation will likely remain rife until there is clearer direction about the path of the US economy.

In Europe, sovereign debt concerns have eased as reflected in the positive reception to debt auctions this week. Nonetheless, after a strong H1 2010 in terms of eurozone economic growth the outlook over the rest of the year is clouded. Such uncertainty means that markets will also find it difficult to find a clear direction leaving asset markets at the whim of day to day data releases and official comments.

The added element of uncertainty has been provided by Japan following its FX intervention this week. Whilst Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention this will not only keep the JPY on the back foot but will provide a much needed prop for the USD in general. Indeed Japan’s intervention has had the inadvertent effect of slowing but not quite stopping the decline in the USD, at least for the present.

The fact that Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention suggests that markets will be wary of selling the USD aggressively in the short term. The headwinds on the USD are likely to persist for sometime however, regardless of intervention by Japan and/or other Asian central banks across Asia, until the uncertainty over the economy and QE2 clears.

Japan’s intervention has not gone down well with the US or European authorities judging by comments made by various officials. In particular, the FX intervention comes at a rather sensitive time just as the US is piling on pressure on China to allow its currency the CNY to strengthen further. Although US Treasury Secretary Geithner didn’t go as far as proposing trade and legal measures in his appearance before Congress yesterday there is plenty of pressure from US lawmakers for the administration to take a more aggressive stance, especially ahead of mid-term Congressional elections in November. Ironically, the pressure has intensified just as China has allowed a more rapid pace of CNY nominal appreciation over recent days although it is still weaker against its basket according to our calculations.

Another country that has seen its central bank intervening over many months is Switzerland, with the SNB having been aggressively intervening to prevent the CHF climbing too rapidly. However, in contrast to Japan the SNB is gradually stepping back from its intervention policy stating yesterday that it would only intervene if the risk of deflation increased. Even so, Japan may have lent the Swiss authorities a hand, with EUR/CHF climbing over recent days following Japan’s intervention.

The move in EUR/CHF accelerated following yesterday’s SNB policy meeting in which the Bank cut its inflation forecasts through 2013, whilst stating that the current policy stance in “appropriate”. Moreover, forecasts of “marked” slowdown in growth over the rest of the year highlight the now slim chance of policy rates rising anytime soon. Markets will eye technical resistance around 1.3459 as a near term target but eventually the CHF will likely resume its appreciation trend, with a move back below EUR/CHF 1.3000 on the cards.

What goes down must go up

What goes down must go up! A day that began with a stronger than forecast increase in China’s purchasing managers index (PMI) and firm Australian Q2 GDP continued with a surprise jump in the August ISM manufacturing index. The ISM rose to 56.3 from 55.5 in July an outcome that contradicted most of the regional US manufacturing surveys. It was not all positive in terms of data, yesterday however, with a weaker UK manufacturing PMI and unexpected drop in the August US ADP employment report casting a shadow over markets.

Nonetheless, for a change the market decided to act on the good news, with risk assets surging. Despite the improvement in risk appetite it still feels as though the market is grasping for direction. The jump in equities is unlikely to prove durable in an environment characterized by various uncertainties about growth and policy, especially the US.

The next hurdle for markets is the US payrolls data tomorrow. Although the ADP jobs report revealed a surprise 10k decline the employment component of the ISM manufacturing survey strengthened to 60.4, suggesting an improvement in August manufacturing payrolls. Ahead of the payrolls release the US data slate today largely consists of second tier releases including July pending home sales, August chain store sales, weekly jobless claims, and factory orders. It is worth paying particular interest to jobless claims given that the four week moving average has been edging higher, suggesting renewed job market deterioration. The consensus is for a 475k increase in claims, which will still leave the 4-week average at an elevated level.

Given that one of the biggest debates raging through markets at present is whether the Fed will embark on further quantitative easing comments by Fed officials overnight were closely scrutinized for further clues. In the event, Fed Governor Kohn highlighted that the Fed’s reinvestment of the proceeds from mortgage-backed securities will not automatically lead to further QE, suggesting some hesitancy on his part. Meanwhile, Dallas Fed President Fisher noted his reluctance to expand the Fed’s balance sheet until fiscal and regulatory uncertainties are cleared up.

Both sets of comments highlight the difficulty in gaining a consensus within the FOMC for a further increase in QE, suggesting that the hurdle for further balance sheet expansion will be set quite high. Moreover, such comments put the onus on Congress to move quickly in clearing up fiscal policy uncertainties.

As markets flip from risk on to risk off almost on a daily basis the question for today is how sustainable the rally in risk trades will prove to be against the background of so much policy and growth uncertainty. Unfortunately today’s data will provide few clues and markets will turn their attention to tomorrow’s US non-farm payrolls report for further direction. To an extent this suggests that it may be a case of treading water until then. Nonetheless, I still maintain that risk trades remain a sell on rallies over coming weeks

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