Strengthening risk appetite hitting the dollar

Strengthening risk appetite is taking its toll on the USD, with the USD index now down around 3.5% from its 4 October peak. Although equity markets probably liked the news the USD was dealt another blow from the FOMC minutes which revealed that some Fed officials were keen on embarking on further large-scale asset purchases after recognizing that the impact of Operation Twist will not be so potent.

Earnings will have some impact on risk and in turn the USD, with Q3 earnings from JP Morgan and Google on tap today. However, risk appetite looks well supported and in a market that became long USDs very quickly, this suggests some scope for squaring long positions in the short term.

What comes next for the EUR? The currency has bounced from its lows and has made considerable ground against the USD over recent sessions. Markets quickly got over Slovakia’s initial rejection of the EFSF’s enhancement as agreement was reached by officials in the country to approve the mechanism in a second vote. However, there is not much news on the progress on issues such as European banking sector recapitalisation, ‘leveraging’ the EFSF or the any change in creditor participation in any Greek debt restructuring.

Although European Commission President Barroso gave some broad outlines of what should be done to recapitalise banks disagreement among officials meant that there was little detail. Perhaps no news is good news and in any case markets will have to wait for the delayed EU Summit for further news, but the longer the wait the greater the scepticism and attendant downside risks to EUR.

The Swiss National Bank must be content with their stance on the CHF. Since the imposition of a ceiling for CHF versus EUR at 1.2000, and after an initial sharp jump higher the currency pair has continued to edge upwards. Meanwhile, speculation that the SNB may even raise the ceiling to 1.30 has grown as domestic complaints such as those from the country’s largest telecoms operator yesterday about the ongoing strength in the currency, continue.

The SNB has not indicated that it favors such a move and may be content with a gradual decline in the CHF as is taking place now, but should the fragile market calm at present disintegrate the SNB may have another battle on their hands as appetite for the currency strengthens anew. On the top side resistance is seen around 1.2469 for EUR/CHF.

Like many other high beta currencies AUD is being influenced less by domestic factors and more by risk aversion. Even more influential to the direction of AUD/USD is the movement in commodity prices and like risk aversion this had a negative influence on AUD as commodity prices dropped sharply over September.

Due to a bounce in both risk and commodities AUD has bounced sharply from its recent lows back above parity with the USD. AUD will have found further support from the firm September jobs report today. It is difficult to go against rising risk appetite at present but there is still a significant risk that hopes of a solution to the eurozone’s woes do not materialise while growth expectations are pared back further. Against this background the AUD will remain susceptible to sharp

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Asian currencies vulnerable to equity outflows

Asian currencies are set to continue to trade cautiously. One big headwind to further appreciation is the fact that there has been a substantial outlook of equity capital over recent weeks. Over the last month to date Asian equity markets have registered an outflow of $3.3 billion in outflows. However, whilst Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and India have seen outflows Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam have registered inflows.

The net result is that equity capital inflows to Asia so far this year are almost flat, a stark contrast from 2009 and 2010 when inflows were much higher at the same point in the year. The odds for further strong inflows do not look good, especially as the Fed ends QE2 by the end of June. While a sharp reversal in capital flows is unlikely, it also seems unlikely that Asia will register anywhere near as strong inflows as the last couple of years.

This will have a significant impact on Asian currencies, whose performance mirrors capital flows into the region. Almost all Asian currencies have dropped against the USD so far this month and could remain vulnerable if outflows continue. Given the relative stability of the USD over recent weeks and imminent end to QE2, the better way to play long Asia FX is very much against the increasingly vulnerable EUR.

The THB has been the worst performing currency this month but its weakness has been attributable to upcoming elections on July 3, which has kept foreign investor sentiment cautious. Thailand has seen an outflow of $812mn from its equity market this month. Polls show the PM Abhisit’s party trailing the opposition and nervousness is likely to persist up to the elections at least. THB weakness is not likely to persist over coming months, with USD/THB forecast at 29.2 by year end.

USD/KRW has been whipsawed over the past week but made up ground despite a continued outflow of equity capital over recent days. KRW has been particularly resilient despite a firmer USD environment and a drop in consumer sentiment in June. Next week the KRW will likely continue to trade positively, helped by a likely firm reading for May industrial production on Thursday. USD/KRW is set to trade in a 1070-1090 range, with direction likely to come from Greece’s parliament vote on its austerity measures.

TWD has traded weaker in June, having been one of the worst performing currencies over the month. USD/TWD does not have a particularly strongly correlation with movements in the USD or risk aversion at present but the currency has suffered from a very sharp outflow of equity capital over recent weeks (biggest outflow out of all Asian countries so far this month). Next week’s interest rate decision on Thursday by the central bank (CBC) will give some direction to the TWD but a 12.5bps increase in policy rates should not come as a big surprise. TWD is likely to trade with a weaker bias but its losses are likely to be capped around the 29.00 level versus USD.

Fed’s status quo fuels caution

The Fed’s status quo did little to stir markets overnight although there was a decidedly negative tone to equities and commodities, perhaps spurred by the downgrading of US growth forecasts. The fact that the Fed did not indicate that it is considering further asset purchases but instead will keep its balance sheet at around $,2800 billion also acted as a drag on markets.

The major concern for markets remains the depth and length of the current ‘soft patch’. The Fed believes it will be temporary and we concur, but clearly the slide in equity markets over recent weeks, suggests that there has been a divergence between stock market expectations and reality. The USD however, may actually be finding a medium term bottom, with the fact that the Fed is not considering QE3,

The downbeat Fed stance combined with a cautious reaction to the Greek government’s passage of a confidence motion indicates that markets will remain cautious over the near term. Indeed, comments by the Greek opposition that they will not support further austerity measures dashed any hopes of unity and will add another obstacle towards an easing in Greek tensions.

As it is the continued wrangling between European officials over private sector participation in any debt rollover as well as uncertainty over how ratings agencies will react, threatens to keep sentiment under pressure. The EUR has remained surprisingly resilient but its muted reaction to the passage of the confidence motion has given way to some weakness and the currency remains a sell on rallies.

GBP was a major underperformer weighed down by the relatively dovish Bank of England MPC minutes in which some members were even discussing further asset purchases. The currency faces further risks from a the CBI reported sales data for June where a decline in sales is likely to be reported. GBP/USD looks vulnerable to a drop below its 200 day moving average around 1.6027.

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).

The Week Ahead

Equity markets and risk trades have generally performed well over the last couple of weeks, with for example the S&P 500 around 7.5% higher since its late August low, whilst equity and currency volatility have been generally low, the latter despite some hefty FX intervention by the Japanese authorities which did provoke a spike in USD/JPY volatility last week.

Risk appetite took a knock at the end of last week in the wake of worries that Ireland may seek EU / IMF assistance although this was denied by Irish officials. A similar worry inflicted Portugal, and as a result peripheral bond spreads were hit. Sovereign worries in Europe have not faded quickly and bond auctions in Greece, Spain and Portugal will garner plenty of attention this week. Renewed worries ahead of the auctions suggest that the market reception could be difficult.

Attention will swiftly turn to the outcome of the Fed FOMC meeting tomorrow and in particular at any shift in Fed stance towards additional quantitative easing following the decision at the August FOMC meeting to maintain the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Given the recent improvement in US economic data the Fed is set to assess incoming data before deciding if further measures are needed.

Housing data in the US will also garner plenty of attention, with several releases scheduled this week. Increases in August housing starts, building permits, existing and new home sales are also expected. Whilst this may give the impression of housing market improvement, for the most part the gains will follow sharp declines previously, with overall housing market activity remaining weak following the expiry of the government tax credit.

Weakness in house prices taken together with a drop in equity markets over the quarter contributed to a $1.5 trillion drop in US household net wealth in Q2. Wealth had been recovering after its decline from Q2 2007 but renewed weakness over the last quarter will not bode well for consumer spending. Household wealth is around $12.4 trillion lower than its peak at the end of Q2 2007.

Aside from the impact of renewed sovereign concerns, European data will not give the EUR much assistance this week either, with Eurozone September flash PMIs and the German IFO survey of business confidence set to weaken as business and manufacturing confidence comes off the boil. If the Fed maintains its policy stance whilst risk aversion increases over coming days the USD may find itself in a firmer position to recoup some of its losses both against the EUR and other currencies.

This will leave EUR/USD vulnerable to drop back down to around support in 1.2955 in the very short-term. As indicated by the CTFC IMM data there has been further short EUR position covering last week whilst sentiment for the USD deteriorated, suggesting increased room for short-USD covering in the event of higher risk aversion.

The impact of Sweden’s election outcome over the weekend is unlikely to do much damage to the SEK despite the fact that the coalition government failed to gain an outright majority. EUR/SEK has edged higher over recent days from its low around 9.1528 but SEK selling pressure is unlikely to intensify following the election, with EUR/SEK 9.3070 providing tough technical resistance.

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