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.

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Asian currencies – What’s correlated with what?

Asian currencies as reflected in the performance of the ADXY index have been on bit of a rollercoaster ride over recent weeks, dropping sharply in the face of a resurgent USD (note most Asian currencies have had a high correlation with the movements in the USD index over the past three-months) only to strengthen briefly before resuming weakness. Since the end of last month almost all Asian currencies are weaker, with the biggest falls led by MYR, KRW, SGD and INR.

Correlation analysis shows that Asian currencies are not particularly being influenced by yield differentials at present, with only USD/IDR and USD/PHP possessing a significant correlation with 2-year bond differentials. In the case of the IDR there has been a narrowing in the yield differential with the US over recent weeks as Indonesian yields have dropped, a factor that could be undermining the IDR at present.

Similarly risk aversion does not appear to be playing a major role in influencing Asian currencies, with a low correlation registered between my Risk Aversion Barometer and all Asian currencies over the past three-months. However, equity performance is more important for some currencies, with the SGD, THB, PHP, IDR and TWD all having a high sensitivity to the performance of their local equity market. Interestingly the INR is less sensitive to equity performance even though India has recorded heavy outflows of equity capital over recent weeks.

Asian currencies are likely to continue to track the gyrations of the USD in general over the short-term as has been the case over recent weeks but it will not be a one way bet for the USD. Whilst I remain bullish on the USD’s prospects over the medium term I am cautious about the ability of the USD to sustain its currency bounce given that there has not been any back up in US bond yields or any clarification on what the Fed will do after QE2 has been completed.

Against this background I do not expect Asian currency weakness to extend much further. Top picks for the year are KRW and PHP as well as the CNY. In any case given the strong influence of general USD direction on Asian currencies, I suggest playing long Asian FX positions versus EUR over coming months, especially given that the EUR is likely to slide much further against the USD by year end, with 1.30 remaining my target.

US Dollar On The Rise

There are plenty of US releases on tap this week but perhaps the most important for the USD will be the minutes of the April 26-27 Fed FOMC meeting. Taken together with speeches by Fed officials including Bernanke, FX markets will attempt to gauge clues to Fed policy post the end of QE2. The Fed’s stance at this point will be the major determinant of whether the USD can sustain its rally over the medium term. The lack of back up in US bond yields suggests that USD momentum could slow, with markets likely to move into wide ranges over coming weeks.

It is worth considering which currencies will suffer more in the event that the USD extends its gains. The correlation between the USD index and EUR/USD is extremely strong (even accounting for the fact that the EUR is a large part of the USD index) suggesting that the USDs gains are largely a result of the EUR’s woes. Aside from the EUR, GBP, AUD and CAD are the most sensitive major currencies to USD strength whilst many emerging market currencies including ZAR, TRY, SGD, KRW, THB, IDR, BRL and MXN, are all highly susceptible to the impact of a stronger USD.

Robust Q1 GDP growth readings in both Germany and France helped to spur gains in the EUR but this proved short-lived. Sentiment for the currency has soured and as reflected in the CFTC IMM data long positions are being scaled back. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of scope for more EUR selling given ongoing worries about the eurozone periphery, which are finally taking their toll on the EUR. A break below EUR/USD 1.4021 would open the door for a test of 1.3980.

The eurogroup and ecofin meetings will be of interest to markets this week but any additional support for Greece is unlikely to be announced at this time. However, likely approval of Portugal’s bailout may alleviate some pressure on the EUR but any positive impetus will be limited. Even on the data front, markets will not be impressed with the German ZEW index of investor confidence likely to register a further decline in May.

Japanese officials have been shying away from further FX intervention by blaming the drop in USD/JPY over recent weeks on general USD weakness despite the move towards 80. However, this view is not really backed up by correlation analysis which shows that there is only a very low sensitivity of USD/JPY to general USD moves over recent months. One explanation for the strength of the JPY is strong flows of portfolio capital into Japan, with both bond and equity markets registering net inflows over the past four straight weeks.

This is not the only explanation, however. One of the main JPY drivers has been a narrowing in yield differentials. This is unlikely to persist with yield differentials set to widen sharply over coming months resulting in a sharply higher USD/JPY. As usual data releases are unlikely to have a big impact on the JPY this week but if anything, a further decline in consumer confidence, and a negative reading for Q1 GDP, will maintain the pressure for a weaker JPY and more aggressive Bank of Japan (BoJ) action although the BoJ is unlikely to shift policy this week.

Gold / FX correlations

There is no shortage of cash rich investors in Asia even amidst the current troubles in Dubai. Indeed, sentiment in the gemstones market is particularly upbeat, with a rare five-carat pink diamond selling for a record HK$84.24 million in Hong Kong. Perhaps this is a good reflection of abundant liquidity and of course wealth in Asia and in particular China, with talk that mainland Chinese investors were strong participants in the diamond auction.

It’s not just diamonds that are selling for record prices; gold hit a fresh high above $1,200 and once again at least part of this is attributable to the appetite of Asian central banks as well as demand from China as the country tries to increase its gold reserves. The rise in gold prices has coincided with a bullish announcement from the world’s top gold producer that it has completely eliminated its market hedges earlier than forecast due to the positive outlook on prices and waning supply.

The correlation between gold prices and the USD remains very strong at -0.88 over the last 3-months, with firmer gold prices, implying further USD weakness. In fact, the gold / USD correlation has been consistently strong over the past few months and is showing little sign of diminishing.

Over the past 6-months the correlation has been -0.91 and over the past 1-month it was -0.75.  Assuming that anything above 0.70 can be considered statistically significant, the relationship shows that USD weakness has been well correlated with gold strength and that despite talk of a breakdown in the relationship it appears to remain solid. 

As long as the bullish trend in gold continues, the pressure on the USD will remain in place.  Adding to this pressure is the fact that risk is back on for now. Markets took the news of a fall in the ISM manufacturing index and in particular the drop in the employment component in its stride even though it supports the view of a weaker than consensus drop in payrolls in November when it is published on Friday.

There are still plenty of reasons to be cautious in the weeks ahead and although we appear to be back in a “risk on” environment markets are likely to gyrate between “risk on” and “risk off” over coming weeks. At least for now, the USD looks to remain under pressure but if risk aversion creeps back up as I suspect it may then the USD will see a bit more resilience into year end. 

Moreover, central banks globally are reaching the limits of their tolerance of USD weakness and will be tested once again, with EUR/USD back above 1.5000, EUR/CHF moving back below 1.5100 and the USD/JPY set to re-test 85.00 following the relatively benign measures announced by the BoJ in which the Bank did little to stem deflationary pressure or weaken the JPY.

Japanese yen and FX sensitivity to interest rates

Interest rates have some way to go before they take over from risk aversion as the key driver of currency markets but as noted in my previous post, low US interest rates have played negatively for the dollar. As markets have continued to pare back US tightening expectations and US interest rate futures have rallied, interest rate differentials have moved against the dollar. 

The most sensitive currency pair in this respect has been USD/JPY which has been the most highly correlated G10 currency pair with relative interest rate differentials over the past month. It has had a high 0.93 correlation with US/Japan interest rate differentials and a narrowing in the rate differential (mainly due to a rally in US rate futures) has resulted in USD/JPY moving lower and the yen becoming one of the best performing currencies over recent weeks.

Going forward the strong FX / interest rate correlation will leave USD/JPY largely at the whim of US interest rate markets (as Japanese rate futures have hardly moved). Fed officials if anything, are adding to the pressure on the dollar as they continue to highlight that US interest rates will not go up quickly. San Francisco Fed President Yellen was the latest official to do so, warning that the prospects for a “tepid” recovery could fuel inflation risks on the downside.

This echoes the sentiments of other Fed officials over recent weeks and suggests that the Fed wants to prevent the market pricing in a premature reversal in US monetary policy.   It looks increasingly likely that the Fed will maintain interest rates at current levels throughout 2010 given the massive amount of excess capacity and benign inflation outlook, suggesting that interest rate differentials will play negatively for the dollar for several months to come.

As for the yen its path will not only depend on relative interest rates but also on the policies of the new DPJ led government. If Japanese press speculation proves correct the new Finance Minister may favour a stronger yen which will benefit domestic consumers rather than a weaker yen that would benefit exporters. Against this background, markets will largely ignore comments by outgoing Finance Minister Yosano who said that further yen strength would be detrimental for exporters.

The market certainly believes that the yen will strengthen further as reflected by the sharp increase in speculative positioning over recent weeks; net CFTC IMM long yen positions have reached their highest since 10 February 2009. Although USD/JPY has pushed higher since it’s low around 90.21 the upside is likely to be limited against this background and a re-test and likely break back below the key 90.00 psychological level is likely soon.

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