The loss of a great forecaster

Forecasters around the world will mourn the loss of one of their finest following the death of Paul the Octopus at the age of 2 ½ (apparently an average age for Octopi). Although Paul had various threats to his life and insults to his mother’s honour he passed away from natural causes. Many forecasters envious of Paul’s record will look now a successor being groomed to take his place. Markets could do with Paul’s abilities in trying to ascertain the magnitude of Fed quantitative easing (QE) to be announced on 3 November. Conflicting comments from the Fed’s Hoenig (hawkish) and Dudley (dovish) yesterday will keep the market’s guessing.

Interestingly US bond yields are backing up and although yields elsewhere are also rising US yields are beginning to move relatively higher. The FX impact is evident in the growing resilience of the USD. Major Currencies with the highest correlations with bond yield differentials are EUR/USD, AUD/USD, EUR/CAD and USD/CHF although USD/JPY correlations have also been pushing higher. These currencies will ultimately suffer the most if US yields back up further.

Part of the reason for the shift higher in US bond yields is growing speculation that the Fed will take a more measured approach to asset purchases whilst recent data, particularly in the US housing market is showing some stabilisation as revealed in existing home sales data on Monday and a surprise gain in the August US FHFA home price index overnight. September new homes sales will be closely watched today to determine whether this stability is becoming broader based.

US consumer confidence continued this pattern, with the Conference Board index rising to 50.2 in October. Perhaps more interesting was the outcome of the US 5-year TIPS auction at a negative yield (-0.55%). The increased demand for inflation protection hints at QE2 working even before it has been carried out but there is a long way to go on this road and it would be premature to read too much into the auction outcome.

It’s worth noting that UK bond yields bucked the trend versus US bond yields following the release of stronger than expected UK GDP. The data alongside persistently above target inflation will likely dampen expectations that the Bank of England (BoE) will follow the path of the Fed into more QE. Consequently GBP has been a key outperformer. EUR/GBP in particular underwent a sharp reversal and technically the currency pair is showing a negative divergence from the 9-day RSI and the MACD is turning lower from overbought levels. The cross needs to drop below 0.8696 to confirm the technical signals.

Closer to home Australian CPI data this morning played into the hands of those looking for the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to remain on hold next week. Although CPI was slightly softer than expected at 0.6% QoQ in Q3, the AUD took the news badly. The RBA has kept the cash rate on hold at 4.5% since May and at the last meeting there was little indication of an urgency to hike. Nonetheless, recent data plays towards a rate hike next week though the outcome is now a much closer call

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What to watch this week

Over recent days trading has been characterised by dollar weakness, stronger equities, rising commodity prices and most recently an increase in US bond yields, the latter driven by some slightly hawkish Fed comments. Whether the tone of stronger attraction to risk trades continues will largely depend on US Q3 earnings however, with many earnings reports scheduled this week.

Given the plethora of Fed officials on the wires over recent days and the mixed comments from these officials there may more attention on US CPI on Thursday than usual but the data is unlikely to fuel any concern about inflation risks. Instead there will be more interest on the Fed FOMC minutes on Wednesday which will once again be scrutinised for the timing of an exit strategy.

Over the week there is plenty for markets to digest aside from earnings reports. US consumer and manufacturing reports will garner most attention. The key release is US September retail sales (Wed) where some payback for the “cash for clunkers” related surge in sales over the last month is likely to result in a drop in headline retail sales, though underlying sales will likely post a modest rise.

Fed speeches will also be monitored and speakers include Kohn, Dudley, Tarullo and Bullard this week. Recent comments have hinted that some Fed members are becoming increasingly concerned about the timing of policy reversal and further signs of this in this week’s speeches may give the dollar some comfort but this will prove limited given that the Fed is still a long way off from reversing policy.

Even if the market believes the Fed is starting to contemplate the timing of reversing its current policy setting it is unclear that the dollar will benefit much in the current environment. Sentiment remains bearish; speculative dollar sentiment deteriorated sharply over the past week according to the CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data, to levels close to the lowest for the year.

Moreover, the correlation between interest rate differentials and currencies is still insignificant in most cases suggesting that even a jump in yields such as the move prompted by last week’s comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke should not automatically be expected to boost the dollar. Once markets become more aggressive in pricing in higher US interest rates this may change but there is little sign of this yet

In contrast the euro continues to benefit from recycling of central bank reserves and recorded a jump in speculative appetite close to its highest level this year according to the IMM data. Reserve flows from central banks may contribute to EUR/USD taking aim at its year high around 1.4844 (last tested on 24 September 09) over coming days.

Is the Fed trying to support the dollar?

Did Fed Chairman Bernanke really provide any real support to the dollar when he said at the Board of Governors conference on Thursday that the Fed will be prepared to tighten monetary policy when the outlook for the economy “has improved sufficiently”. Various newswires report that these comments have given the dollar some relief but the reality is that Bernanke only stated the obvious. Of course the Fed has to raise interest rates at some point and most likely this will be when the economic recovery looks sustainable. There is indication when this point in time will be, however.

In fact there was unsurprisingly no sign from Bernanke that the Fed was preparing to raise rates any time soon. As was noted in the September 23 Fed FOMC statement Bernanke reiterated that the Fed “believe that accommodative policies will likely be warranted for an extended period”. An extended period could mean at the least some months but even years and this is no exaggeration.

In 2001 the Fed did not begin to hike rates until around 2 ½ years after the end of the recession whilst in 1990-91 rates did not go up until close to 3 years after recession ended. Arguably this recession was worse in terms of depth and breadth suggesting that it will take a long time before the Fed even contemplates reversing policy. In any case the first step is to reduce the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Admittedly there has been some suggestions from other Fed members that when interest rates are raised it may be done “with greater force” as stated by Fed Governor Warsh recently but others such as NY Fed President Dudley have said that the pace of recovery “is not likely to be robust”, suggesting a more cautious tone and also highlighting that there is some debate within the Fed about the timing of exit strategies and raising interest rates.

There is no doubt that some Fed members are becoming more nervous about holding policy at such an accommodative level but it could still be several months before policy is reversed given the massive excess capacity in the product and labour markets and benign outlook for inflation. Judging by past history markets have little to be nervous about in terms of an early rate hike.

For the dollar this is bad news and as noted in my previous post the dollar will suffer from a growing yield disadvantage as other countries raise interest rates ahead of the Fed. The dollar may have benefited from some short covering at the end of the week and this could have been provoked by Bernanke’s comments but if so, the dollar’s gains are likely to be short-lived as investors take the opportunity of better levels to take short positions in the currency.

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