Sour end to the week

It’s a sour end to the week for markets. Just as emerging markets (EM) were beginning to see some signs of stability, a surge in US Treasury bond yields (hitting a high of 3.23%) acted to fuel another round of pressure, pushing bond yields higher globally while denting equity market sentiment.   As a result EM equities took another beating and EM currencies fell against a resurgent USD.

The surge in US yields followed a run of strong US data including a gauge of service sector sentiment (ISM non-manufacturing index hit a new expansion high) and strong private sector jobs data (ADP jobs report).  Constructive comments from Fed Chairman Powell on the economy, supporting expectations that US interest rates will be hiked again in December, added to the upbeat mood on the economy.   At the time of writing attention is focused on the US September jobs report which is unlikely to detract from the upbeat US growth story.

US-China tensions are another factor weighing on sentiment.  While there has been no sign of any progress on trade talks even as the US agreed trade deals with Canada and Mexico, criticism by US Vice President Mike Pence on Chinese policy, has weighed on Asian markets.  There appears to be no sign of any appeasement between the two countries, suggesting that tensions will not easy anytime soon.

Any hope of a recovery in risk assets especially in emerging markets as we go into the final quarter of the year are beginning tofade.   After losing ground over much of September the USD has bounced back with a vengeance, while US assets continue to outperform much of the rest of the world, attracting even more capital.  While heavy long USD positioning and increasingly stretched US equity valuations hold risks against further gains in both, markets are not yet willing to run from US assets.

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Swiss franc to remain strong

Given the uncertainties enveloping both the US and Europe safe haven and various emerging market currencies have looked increasingly attractive. Currencies that remain on top in the current environment are the CHF and to a lesser extent the JPY, much to the chagrin of the Swiss and Japanese authorities. Indeed, in reaction to unwanted CHF strength the Swiss central bank, SNB unexpectedly cut interest rates and said it will increase CHF liquidity to the money markets. The CHF fell in the wake of the announcement but the impact may prove short lived.

Both the JPY and CHF have registered a strong correlation with risk aversion over the last 3-months, strengthening as risk aversion has intensified. In particular, the CHF has been the best performing major currency this year and shows no sign of turning around despite the fact that it has already strengthened by around 21% against the USD and over 12% against the EUR. The Swiss National Bank had even ceased from intervening in the currency markets given the lack of success and pain on the SNB’s balance sheet.

The Japanese authorities last intervened in the FX market in March 2011 following the devastating earthquake in the country. However, despite the fact that the JPY has strengthened after a brief period of success, the authorities have been reluctant to intervene since. The major explanation for a lack of intervention is that the Japanese authorities blame the drop in USD/JPY on USD weakness rather than inherent JPY strength. A more accurate reason is that the yield differential between the US and Japan has narrowed, leading to JPY strength versus USD while more recently rising risk aversion has pushed the JPY higher.

I am bearish on both the CHF and JPY over the medium term but clearly any drop in these currencies is taking longer than initially anticipated. Higher relative yields taken together with some normalisation in risk appetite will help but the risks at present are still skewed for further CHF and JPY strength in the short term given that risk aversion remains elevated. The fact that peripheral bond spreads in Europe have continued to widen will only raise the attraction of the CHF as a safe haven currency so despite the SNB’s new measures, it may do little to prevent further strength in the currency.

Asian currencies at multi-year highs

Asian currencies are stronger in the wake of a sharp improvement in risk appetite following the approval of Greece’s austerity measures. The rally in Asian FX is revealed in the ADXY (an index of Asian currencies) index which is approaching a test of its 2nd May high around 119.26 around its highest level since August 1997. Technical indicators have turned more bullish, with the ADXY breaking above its key moving average levels (20, 50 & 100 day) and the 14-day relative strength index also turning higher.

The Asian FX rally has been led by the KRW, the Asian currency that has had the highest correlation with risk over the past few weeks. Given that risk aversion has dropped sharply since mid June it is no surprise that this currency has strengthened the most. USD/KRW is trading around its lowest level since August 2008. Strong equity capital outflows had kept the KRW on the back foot over much of June but there has been a bounce back in flows recently. However, USD/KRW is likely to find it tough to break below 1060 over the short-term, especially given likely resistance from the local authorities.

The THB, the worst performing Asian currency in June, has rapidly reversed some of its losses. The THB looks set to consolidate its gains following a decisive election result which saw the opposition Puea Thai Party gain control of parliament. The biggest relief for markets was the fact that the outcome was relatively clear cut, suggesting a potentially a smooth handover of power. Nonetheless, the currency has already jumped and after having dropped to around 30.40 from a high of around 31.01 USD/THB is likely to trade off gyrations in risk appetite.

The fact that the USD has lost some ground in the wake of firmer risk appetite and better news in Greece has also allowed Asian currencies to strengthen although it’s worth noting that amongst Asian currencies only the MYR has maintained a significant correlation with the USD index over the past 3-months. In other words, although USD weakness has helped to facilitate Asian currency strength, the recent strengthening in Asian FX is more likely to have been due to a rebound in capital inflows to the region.

Further Asian FX gains are likely over the near term especially as China continues to fix the CNY higher versus USD but given the recent rapid gains in some currencies, there is a risk of growing official resistance and intervention to slow or stem Asian FX gains. Moreover, the end of QE2 in the US suggests that the downside risks for the USD in general are not likely to be as prevalent, with a potential recovery in the USD over H2 likely to stand in the way of strong Asian FX gains over coming months.

Greece’s trials and tribulations

Two main influences on markets continue to weigh on sentiment. Firstly the trials and tribulations of the eurozone periphery remain centre of attention. The failure of Greek Prime Minister Papandreou to win cross party support for austerity measures at the end of last week highlights the problems Greece is facing both domestically and externally.

Reports that European officials are negotiating tough bailout conditions including major external intervention in terms of tax collection and privatisation suggest that gaining further aid will not be easy. The second weight on market sentiment is global growth concerns, with a string of disappointing data releases over recent weeks leading to an intensification of concerns about the pace of recovery.

Markets will likely remain nervous in this environment and it is difficult to see risk appetite improving to any major degree. This has proven bullish for bond markets, with the tone set to continue this week. Currencies remain in ranges and holidays today in the US and UK will likely result in thin trading. The resilience of the EUR to peripheral concerns has been impressive but at the same time Greek concerns will limit any gains. Meanwhile, gold and precious metals look to remain well supported, with gold’s safe haven bid remaining solid.

USD sentiment has improved sharply according to the latest CFTC IMM report which reveals that net USD short positions have been cut in half over the last two weeks with positioning well above the 3-month average. Conversely net EUR longs continue to shrink as speculative investors off load the currency. The fact that the EUR is not weaker than it is points to the influence of official demand for the currency, especially from Asia.

This week will likely be dominated by ongoing discussions about Greece and given the opposition to austerity measures and potentially strict bailout terms, forging an agreement will not be easy. Reports suggest that around half of Greece’s financing needs until the end of 2013 could be accounted for without new loans via privatisation and changes in terms for private bondholders, with Europe and the IMF needed to lend an additional EUR 30-35 billion on top of the EUR 110 already slated.

Data releases are likely to take a back seat but there will still be plenty of attention on the key release of the week, namely the May US jobs report. The market looks for a 185k increase in payrolls, with the unemployment rate edging lower to 8.9%. This would mark the lowest payrolls reading in 4 months. Clues to the jobs data will be garnered from the May ADP jobs report, ISM manufacturing survey and consumer confidence data earlier in the week.

Euro Sentiment Jumps, USD Sentiment Dives

The bounce in the EUR against a broad range of currencies as well as a shift in speculative positioning highlights a sharp improvement in eurozone sentiment. Indeed, the CFTC IMM data reveals that net speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time since mid-November. A rise in the German IFO business confidence survey last week, reasonable success in peripheral bond auctions (albeit at unsustainable yields), hawkish ECB comments and talk of more German support for eurozone peripheral countries, have helped.

A big driver for EUR at present appears to be interest rate differentials. In the wake of recent commentary from Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet following the last ECB meeting there has been a sharp move in interest rate differentials between the US and eurozone. This week’s European data releases are unlikely to reverse this move, with firm readings from the flash eurozone country purchasing managers indices (PMI) today and January eurozone economic sentiment gauges expected.

Two big events will dictate US market activity alongside more Q4 earnings reports. President Obama’s State of The Union address is likely to pay particular attention on the US budget outlook. Although the recent fiscal agreement to extend the Bush era tax cuts is positive for the path of the economy this year the lack of a medium to long term solution to an expanding budget deficit could come back to haunt the USD and US bonds.

The Fed FOMC meeting on Wednesday will likely keep markets treading water over the early part of the week. The Fed will maintain its commitment to its $600 billion asset purchase program. Although there is plenty of debate about the effectiveness of QE2 the program is set to be fully implemented by the end of Q2 2011. The FOMC statement will likely note some improvement in the economy whilst retaining a cautious tone. Markets will also be able to gauge the effects of the rotation of FOMC members, with new member Plosser possibly another dissenter.

These events will likely overshadow US data releases including Q4 real GDP, Jan consumer confidence, new home sales, and durable goods orders. GDP is likely to have accelerated in Q4, confidence is set to have improved, but at a low level, housing market activity will remain burdened by high inventories and durable goods orders will be boosted by transport orders. Overall, the encouraging tone of US data will likely continue but markets will also keep one eye on earnings. Unfortunately for the USD, firm US data are being overshadowed by rising inflation concerns elsewhere.

Against the background of intensifying inflation tensions several rate decisions this week will be of interest including the RBNZ in New Zealand, Norges Bank in Norway and the Bank of Japan. All three are likely to keep policy rates on hold. There will also be plenty of attention on the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes to determine their reaction to rising inflation pressures, with a slightly more hawkish voting pattern likely as MPC member Posen could have dropped his call for more quantitative easing (QE). There will also be more clues to RBA policy, with the release of Q4 inflation data tomorrow.

Both the EUR and GBP have benefitted from a widening in interest rate futures differentials. In contrast USD sentiment has clearly deteriorated over recent weeks as highlighted in the shift in IMM positioning, with net short positions increasing sharply. It is difficult to see this trend reversing over the short-term, especially as the Fed will likely maintain its dovish stance at its FOMC meeting this week. This suggests that the USD will remain on the back foot.

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.

FX sensitivity to yield

It’s all about yield. The back up in US bond yields in reaction to the US tax compromise from the Obama administration has been particularly sharp. US 10 year bond yields jumped around 35bps this week prior to a small correction in yields overnight whilst 2s were up 21bps. US bond yields are now back where they were in June, a fact that makes a mockery out of the Fed’s attempts to drive bond yields lower via quantitative easing (QE). Yields elsewhere increased too but by a smaller degree whilst equity market sentiment has been dampened by the rise in global yields although US stocks still ended higher overnight.

There is plenty of commentary discussing the impact on currencies of the move in bond yields so it’s worth looking in more detail how sensitive FX markets have been to yield. The most sensitive currencies i.e. those with the highest 3-month correlations with relative bond yield differentials (2 year) are the AUD/USD, EUR/USD, and of course USD/JPY. However, there is less sensitivity to gyrations in 10 year yields with no currency pair registering a statistically significant correlation with 10-year bond yield differentials over the past 3-months.

Assuming that US bond yields continue to push higher into 2011, with much lager increases in both nominal and yields expected, this means that AUD, EUR and JPY will face the most pressure relative to the USD. Moreover, the stimulus measures agreed by the US administration will likely lead to many analysts penciling in higher growth forecasts over 2011 whilst reducing the prospects of QE3 from taking place, all of which is USD positive. I still retain a degree of caution in Q1 2011, especially with regard to a potential bounce in EUR, especially if the ECB becomes more aggressive in its bond buying, but even so, any EUR rally is likely to prove termporary.

The impact of higher US yields on the AUD may be more limited however, despite the high correlation with relative bond yields, as Australian bond yields are also likely to rise somewhat given the resilience of its economy. This was clearly demonstrated by Australian November employment data released overnight revealing yet another consensus beating outcome of +54.6k, with all the gains coming from full time employment. Against the background of a generally firm USD, the best way to play AUD resilience is via the NZD, with the currency pair likely break through resistance around 1.3220 (21 October high).

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