Euro treads water ahead of ECB decision

EUR/USD has been treading water in a relatively tight range ahead of the European Central Bank meeting later today but the currency looks vulnerable to further slippage in the days ahead. Having dropped from its high around 1.3898 on 27 December the EUR has failed to sustain any bounce.

The ECB is unlikely to offer any support to the currency especially given that there is a small chance that they may even trim policy rates at today’s meeting. If the Bank does not cut rates today, the ECB is set to open the door to a cut in March, something that would undermine the EUR further.

Either way, the EUR is losing support and our quantitative models highlight the potential for further downside moves in the currency. Other measures such as short term interest rate differentials also highlight risks to EUR.

EUR/USD is set to edge lower to technical support around 1.3477 in the near term.

Advertisement

Extreme Uncertainty

The level of uncertainty enveloping global markets has reached an extreme level. Who would have thought that close to 13 years after its introduction at a time when it has become the second largest reserve currency globally (26.7% of global reserves) as well as the second most traded currency in the world, European leaders would be openly talking about allowing countries to exit the EUR? No less an issue for currency markets is the sustainability of the USD’s role as the foremost reserve currency (60.2% of global reserves). The US debt ceiling debacle and the dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet have led to many official reserve holders to question their use of the USD. Perhaps unsurprisingly the JPY has been the main beneficiary of such concerns especially as global risk aversion has increased but to the Japanese much of this attention is unwanted and unwelcome.

The immediate focus is the travails of the eurozone periphery. Against the background of severe debt tensions and political uncertainties it is perhaps surprising that the EUR has held up reasonably well. However, this resilience is related more to concerns about the long term viability of the USD rather than a positive view of the EUR, as many official investors continue to diversify away from the USD. I question whether the EUR’s resilience can be sustained given that it may be a long while before the situation in the eurozone stabilises. Moreover, given the now not insignificant risk of one or more countries leaving the eurozone the long term viability of the EUR may also come into question. I believe a break up of the eurozone remains unlikely but such speculation will not be quelled until markets are satisfied that a safety net / firewall for the eurozone periphery is safely in place.

In this environment fundamentals count for little and risk counts for all. If anything, market tensions have intensified and worries about the eurozone have increased since last month. Politics remain at the forefront of market turmoil, and arguably this has led to the worsening in the crisis as lack of agreement between eurozone leaders has led to watered down solutions. Recent changes in leadership in Italy and Greece follow on from government changes in Portugal and Ireland while Spain is widely expected to emerge with a new government following elections. Meanwhile Chancellor Merkel has had to tread a fine line given opposition from within her own coalition in Germany while in France President Sarkozy is expected to have a tough time in elections in April next year. The likelihood of persistent political tensions for months ahead suggests that the EUR and risk currencies will suffer for a while longer.

RBA on hold, RBI hikes rates

News of the death of Osama Bin Laden gave the USD a lift and its gains have extended for a second day. Extreme short market positioning as well as increasing risk aversion (perhaps due to worries about retaliation following Bin Laden’s death) have helped the USD.

However, the boost to the USD could be short-lived in the current environment in which it remains the preferred global funding currency. Indeed, the fact that US bond yields have dropped sharply over recent weeks continues to undermine the USD against various currencies.

The USD firmed despite the US ISM manufacturing index dropping slightly, albeit from a high level. The survey provided some useful clues to Friday’s US jobs report, with the slight decline in the employment component of the ISM survey to 62.7 consistent with a 200k forecast for April payrolls.

Ahead of the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting on Thursday hawkish rhetoric from new Council member and Bundesbank chief Weidmann (replacing Weber) and more reassurances from Greek and EU officials that there will be no debt restructuring or haircut on the country’s debt has helped the EUR although it is notable that it could not sustain a foot hold above 1.49. Eurozone bond yields have risen by around 20bps compared to US yields over the past month, a fact that suggests that the EUR may not fall far in the short-term.

USD/JPY is trading dangerously close to levels that may provoke FX intervention by the Japanese authorities. General USD weakness fuelled a drop in USD/JPY which has been exacerbated by a rise in risk aversion over recent days (higher risk aversion usually plays in favour of a stronger JPY). The biggest determinant of the drop in USD/JPY appears to a narrowing in bond yields (2-year bond yields have narrowed by around 20bps over the past month) largely due to a rally in US bonds.

Unsurprisingly the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left its cash rate on hold at 4.75%. The accompanying statement showed little inclination to hike rates anytime soon, with credit growth noted as modest, pressure from a stronger exchange rate on the traded sector and temporary prices shocks which are expected to dissipate. The only indication that rates will eventually increase is the view that longer term inflation is expected to move higher.

I look for further rate hikes over coming months even with the AUD at such a high level. AUD has lost a bit of ground after hitting a high just above 1.10 against the USD and on the margin the statement is slightly negative for AUD. A slightly firmer USD overall and stretched speculative positioning, with IMM AUD positions close to their all time high, points to some downside risks in the short-term.

In contrast India’s central bank the RBI hiked interest rates by more than many expected. Both the repo and reverse repo rates were raised by 50bps, with the central bank governor highlighting renewed inflation risks in his statement. The decision reveals a shift in RBI rhetoric to an even more hawkish bias in the wake of rising inflation pressures, which should be beneficial to the rupee.

G7 Intervention Hits Japanese Yen

One could imagine that it was not difficult for Japan to garner G7 support for joint intervention in currency markets given the terrible disaster that has hit the country. Given expectations of huge repatriation flows into Japan and a possible surge in the JPY Japanese and G7 officials want to ensure currency stability and lower volatility. Moreover, as noted in the G7 statement today officials wanted to show their solidarity with Japan, with intervention just one means of showing such support.

Although Japanese Finance Minister Noda stated that officials are not targeting specific levels, the psychologically important level of 80.00 will likely stick out as a key level to defend. Note that the last intervention took place on 15 September 2010 around 83.00 and USD/JPY was trading below this level even before the earthquake struck. The amount of intervention then was around JPY 2.1 trillion and at least this amount was utilised today. The last joint G7 intervention took place in September 2000.

Unlike the one off FX intervention in September 2010, further intervention is likely over coming days and weeks by Japan and the Federal Reserve, Bank of France, Bundesbank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and other G7 nations. The timing of the move today clearly was aimed at avoiding a further dramatic drop in USD/JPY, with Thursday’s illiquid and stop loss driven drop to around 76.25 adding to the urgency for intervention. USD/JPY will find some resistance around the March high of 83.30, with a break above this level likely to help maintain the upside momentum.

The JPY has become increasingly overvalued over recent years as reflected in a variety of valuation measures. Prior to today’s intervention the JPY was over 40% overvalued against the USD according to the Purchasing Power Parity measure, a much bigger overvaluation than any other Asian and many major currencies. The trade weighted JPY exchange rate has appreciated by around 56% since June 2007. In other words there was plenty of justification for intervention even before the recent post earthquake surge in JPY

Although Japanese exporters had become comfortable with USD/JPY just above the 80 level over recent months, whilst many have significant overseas operations, the reality is that a sustained drop in USD/JPY inflicts significant pain on an economy and many Japanese exporters at a time when export momentum is slowing. Japan’s Cabinet office’s annual survey in March revealed that Japanese companies would remain profitable if USD/JPY is above 86.30. Even at current levels it implies many Japanese companies profits are suffering.

Upward pressure on the JPY will remain in place, suggesting a battle in prospect for the authorities to weaken the currency going forward. Round 1 has gone to the Japanese Ministry of Finance and G7, but there is still a long way to go, with prospects of huge repatriation flows likely to make the task of weakening the JPY a difficult one. The fact that there is joint intervention will ensure some success, however and expect more follow up by other G7 countries today to push the JPY even weaker over the short-term.

G20 Leaves The US Dollar Under Pressure

The G20 meeting of Finance Ministers and Central bankers failed to establish any agreement on clear targets or guidelines. Perhaps the problem of trying to achieve consensus amongst a variety of sometimes conflicting views always pointed to an outcome of watered down compromise but in the event the G20 summit appears to pass the buck to November’s summit of G20 leaders in Seoul where more concrete targets may be outlined.

Officials pledged to “move towards more market determined exchange rate systems” and to “refrain from competitive devaluation of currencies”. What does this actually mean? The answer is not a great deal in terms of practical implications. The first part of the statement is the usual mantra from such meetings and the addition of the latter part will do little to stop central banks, especially in Asia from continuing to intervene given that no central bank is actually devaluing their currency but rather preventing their currencies from strengthening too rapidly.

The communiqué highlighted the need for advanced economies being “vigilant against excess volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates”, but once again this is the mantra found in the repertoire of central bankers over past years and is unlikely to have the desired effect of reducing the “excessive volatility in capital flows facing some emerging countries”. In other words many emerging countries will continue to have an open door to impose limited restrictions on “hot money” flows.

Although the language on currencies was stronger than in previous summits it arguably changes very little in terms of the behaviour of central banks and governments with respect to currencies. The communiqué is wide open to varying interpretations by countries and is unlikely to prevent the ongoing trend of USD depreciation and emerging market country FX appreciation and interventions from continuing over coming weeks.

The onus has clearly shifted to the November summit of G20 leaders but once again it seems unlikely that substantial agreements will be found. In the interim the November 3 Fed FOMC meeting will be the next major focus and if the Fed embarks on renewed asset purchases as widely expected FX tensions will remain in place for some time yet.

So whilst a “currency war” was always unlikely “skirmishes” will continue. In the meantime the USD is set to remain under pressure although it’s worth noting that speculative positioning has recorded a reduction in net aggregate USD short positions over the last couple of weeks, suggesting that some of the USD selling pressure may have abated. Whether this reflected caution ahead of the G20 meeting (as the data predates the G20 meeting) or indicated the USD having priced in a lot of quantitative easing (QE2) expectations already, is debatable.

The path of least resistance to USD weakness remains via major currencies including AUD, CAD and NZD. Officials in Europe are also showing little resistance to EUR strength despite the premature tightening in financial conditions and negative impact on growth that it entails. Scandinavian currencies such as SEK and NOK have also posted strong gains against the USD and will likely continue to show further outperformance.

The JPY has been the best performing major currency this year followed not far behind by the CHF despite the FX interventions of the authorities in Japan and Switzerland. Although USD/JPY is fast approaching the 80.00 line in the sand level expected to result in fresh FX intervention by the Japanese authorities, the path of the JPY remains upwards. Japan is unlikely to go away from the G20 meeting with any change in policy path as indicated by officials following the weekend deliberations.

%d bloggers like this: