All Eyes On Jackson Hole

It’s all about Jackson Hole and ahead of the Fed symposium the USD index is likely to maintain its place in towards the middle end of its recent 73.47 – 75.12 range helped by weaker equity markets. Expectations or hopes that Fed Chairman Bernanke will announce or at least hint at a fresh round of quantitative easing have receded allowing the USD to escape further pressure. Bernanke will likely keep all options open but there are still some in the FOMC who do not want to embark on QE3.

Although the USD may be saved from a further drubbing the commitment to maintain exceptionally accommodative monetary policy through Q2 2013 has contributed to a relative reduction in US bond yields and in turn is acting to restrain the US currency. A likely revision lower to US Q2 GDP will not help the USD in this respect.

One currency in particular that is reactive to yield differentials is USD/JPY, which registers an impressively high correlation with US – Japan yield differentials. Attempts this week by the Japanese authorities to encourage capital outflows and a downgrade of Japan’s credit ratings by Moody’s have done little to weaken the JPY.

Even the usually bearish JPY Japanese margin traders have been scaling back their long USD/JPY positions over recent weeks while speculative investors remain overly long (well above the three-month average) JPY according to IMM data. The risk of a shake out of long JPY positions is high but unless yield differentials reverse renewed JPY weakening looks unlikely in the short-term.

Eurozone peripheral issues will be put on the backburner ahead of the Jackson Hole meeting but that doesn’t mean they have gone away. As the continued pressure on Greek bonds shows markets continue to be fixated on the country’s problems and there may be growing nervousness ahead of the decision to distribute the next IMF loan tranche at the end of September. Nervousness also extended to Germany, with ratings agencies having to confirm the country’s AAA rating.

So far this week EUR has shown impressive resilience despite weak data in the form the German August IFO business and ZEW investor confidence surveys. However, there is a risk of EUR weakness should Bernanke not hint at QE3, with the currency already trading around the bottom of its multi-day range.

AUD has failed to recoup its end July losses and is still some 5% below its high above 1.10 versus USD. There is scope for some AUD appreciation especially as AUD speculative positioning has dropped sharply over recent weeks reducing sharply the net long overhang in the currency.

Moreover, markets have become overly aggressive in pricing in interest rate cuts in Australia and as evidenced from the AUD bounce following RBA Governor Stevens comments this morning (in which he referred to inflation data as still being concerning) there is an asymmetric risk to the AUD on the upside.

Nonetheless, AUD has experienced an increase in sensitivity to risk over recent weeks and will continue to be driven by gyrations in risk appetite. In this respect it is too early to assume the worst is over, suggesting that any further gains in AUD will be limited.

Asia Helps The Euro Again

Following the pressure on markets over recent days there is some relief filtering through markets today although sentiment remains fickle. Weaker than expected US April durable goods orders data failed to dent confidence with equity markets ending in positive territory overnight even though the data added to a plethora of global data disappointments over recent weeks.

Once again the EUR has been saved by Asian demand, this time not directly for the EUR itself but by reports that China and other Asian investors will purchases EFSF bailout bonds, with China apparently reported to be “clearly interested” in the mid June sales of Portuguese bailout bonds, with Asian investors representing a “strong proportion” of the buyers.

Despite the reassuring news about Asian official interest in eurozone debt, problems in the periphery remain a major drag on the EUR. Developments at the two day G8 heads of governments meeting in Deauville and various speeches by officials from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), European Union (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB) regarding Greece’s travails will be particularly important for EUR direction.

The various speakers are likely to maintain the pressure on peripheral countries to continue their austerity programmes in order to gain external support. Nonetheless, there still appears to be conflicting comments about what Greece will do with regard to its debt burden. Whilst some EU officials have espoused the benefits of extending Greek debt maturities on a voluntary basis, the ECB has steadfastly stood against any form of restructuring.

Other than the events above, in the US the second reading of Q1 GDP will be released. The consensus looks for an upward revision to a 2.1% annual rate from an initial estimate of 1.8% due mainly to an upward revision to inventories. US weekly jobless claims will also be of interest especially as the recent increase in the 4-week average for jobless claims has provoked renewed fears about the jobs market recovery.

Risk off mood

A ‘risk off’ tone is quickly permeating its way through the market psyche as tensions surrounding the eurozone periphery reach fever pitch. This is reflected in the sharp jump in equity volatility as indicated by the VIX ‘fear’ gauge. Equity markets and risk trades in general look set to remain under pressure in the current climate.

Moreover, the EUR which is finally succumbing to bad news about the periphery will continue to face pressure over the short-term. Against this background economic data will likely be relegated to the background this week but it worth noting that what data there is on tap, is likely to send a weaker message, with data such as durable goods orders in the US as well as various purchasing managers indices (PMI) data in the eurozone today likely to show some slippage.

The Greek saga remains at the forefront of market attention, with restructuring speculation remaining high despite various denials over the weekend by Greek and European Central Bank (ECB) officials. News that Norway has frozen payments to Greece, whilst Fitch ratings agency’s downgrades of Greece’s ratings by 3 notches and S&P’s downgrade of Italy’s ratings outlook to negative, have all contributed to the malaise afflicting the periphery.

This weekend’s local election in Spain in which Prime Minister Zapatero and his Socialist Party suffered its worst defeat in more than 30 years leading to a transfer of power in the Spanish regions, will lead to concerns about the ability of the government to carry out much needed legislative changes.

It is difficult to see any improvement in sentiment towards the peripheral Europe and consequently the EUR over the short-term. In Greece, Prime Minister Papandreou will attempt to push through further unpopular austerity measures through parliament this week in advance of a 5th bailout tranche of EUR 12 billion scheduled for next month. This comes at a time when opinion polls show the government losing more support and 80% of those surveyed saying they would not accept more austerity measures.

The deterioration in sentiment for the EUR has been rapid as reflected in the CFTC IMM data, with net long speculative positions now at their lowest since 15 February and heading further downhill. Conversely, USD short covering has been significant though there is still a hefty USD short overhang, which points to more USD short covering as EUR sentiment sours.

Nonetheless, the USD still has plenty of risks hanging over it including the fact that it still suffers from an adverse yield differential (note that 2-year Treasury yields have fallen to the lowest since 6 December 2010). Safe haven currencies in particular CHF are the key beneficiaries and notably EUR/CHF touched a record low around 1.2354 and is showing little sign of any rebound.

Equity Flow Reversal Supports Asian FX

Asian currencies have rebounded smartly from their post Japan earthquake lows on March 16. The ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asia Currency index) is now at its highest level since September 1997 reflecting a sharp rebound in capital inflows to the region. The performance of Asian currencies continues to correspond closely with the movement in capital flows.

Although almost all Asian equity markets have registered outflows so far this year (total equity outflows -$6.2bn), the trend is reversing. Over the past month there has been a major slowing in capital outflows for most countries in Asia whilst India, Thailand and the Philippines have actually registered sizeable inflows. South Korea is notable in that there has been a sharp increase in equity capital inflows over the past week.

Although there has been much focus on a rotation of capital flows out of Asia and into developed economies this year, it is worth noting that the pattern of equity flows in Q1 2011 has not been too different from that witnessed in the past couple of years. In both 2009 and 2010 equity outflows were recorded over the two (2010) or three (2009) months of the year before a reversal took place. This pattern looks like it is repeating itself.

Clearly the environment for Asian equity markets is not as supportive as it was last year given the belated tightening in monetary policies being undertaken by many central banks and prospects of an end to QE2 in the US. Whilst this will result in some reduction in capital flows to the region compared to last year, the overall outlook is positive. Easing risk aversion (our risk aversion barometer has already reversed all of its post Japan earthquake spike and is trending lower), positive growth outlook and maintenance of low US rates point to more inflows.

One currency in particular that will benefit is KRW, with a further drop in USD/KRW likely over coming weeks. KRW has already strengthened by around by around 2.7% since its post Japan earthquake low making it the best performing currency since then. Further gains are likely; a test of USD/KRW 1100 is on the cards in the short-term, with the year end target standing at 1050.

Why buy KRW? 1) Korea has registered the biggest improvement in equity capital flows recently, 2) KRW has been the most sensitive Asian currency to risk over the past month and therefore benefits the most as risk appetite improves, 3) Estimated Price/Earnings ratio for Korean equities looks cheap compared to its historical z-score according to our estimates. As a result our quantitative model on USD/KRW based on commodity prices, risk aversion and equity performance highlights the potential for significantly more KRW strength.

GBP troubles, KRW too weak

The Fed FOMC minutes for the January meeting revealed that behind the unanimous vote to leave policy settings unchanged there was some unease about the completion of QE2. Nonetheless, the USD was left weaker given the Fed’s sanguine view on inflation and worries about unemployment. Inflation data will garner most market attention today but the fact that the core rate of CPI inflation is expected to remain well below the Fed’s preferred level could undermine the USD and add a further barrier to the USD’s recovery so far in February. Jobless claims data will also be of interest given the sharp drop last week. Another firm outcome will help to dispel worries about job market recovery.

As warned in my last post, downside risks to GBP were high given the long GBP speculative positioning overhang and hawkish expectations for the BoE Quarterly Inflation Report. In the event the Report revealed a downward growth forecast revision and an upward inflation forecast revision but importantly showed some reluctance to play into market expectations of an early UK policy rate hike. Following on from a weaker than expected UK January jobs report in which unemployment increased, GBP was hit on both counts. GBP/USD is unlikely to veer far from the 1.6000 level, but with markets reassessing interest rate expectations downside risks are beginning to open up.

News yesterday that Moody’s ratings agency has placed Australia and New Zealand’s major banks on review for possible downgrades went down like a lead balloon but once again AUD and NZD showed their usual resilience and acted as if little has happened. AUD and NZD have weakened since the turn of the year. Weaker data and a paring back in policy tightening expectations have contributed to the weaker performance of the AUD and NZD, but markets have gone too far in scaling back the timing and magnitude of interest rate hikes, suggesting that both currencies may bounce back as interest rate expectations become more hawkish.

Asian currencies continue to register mixed performances largely influenced by capital flows. Most equity markets in the region have registered outflows so far in 2011, with the exception of Taiwan and Vietnam. This has been reflected in Asian FX performance, with the strongest performer being the IDR, but its gains have only been around 0.72% versus USD, coinciding with the fact that it has registered some of the least capital outflows this year. Interestingly the worst performing currency has been the THB, one of last year’s star performers. Korea has also registered strong equity capital outflows but this will not persist and a resumption of inflows taken together with positive fundamentals and higher interest rates will boost the KRW this year.

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