Action Shifting To Currencies as Rates Volatility Eases

US stocks barely closed higher at the end of last week and flirted with bear market territory. US consumer and retail stocks remain under pressure alongside industrials as recession fears intensify.  Indeed while inflation concern remain elevated, recession fears are increasing. US Treasury yields are finally coming off the boil amid such fears, with May seeing a significant pull back in yields; the biggest decline has been in the 3-10 year part of the yield curve over recent weeks.  This has been met with a decline in interest rate volatility unlike equity and implied currency volatility measures, which have pushed higher.   For instance, major currency implied volatility measures have reached their highest since around March 2020. Emerging markets volatility breached its March 2020 high in March 2022 and after a brief fall is moving back higher.  

Action is shifting to currencies and the drop in the US dollar from its highs, with the currency increasingly undermined by lower US yields.  In Asia, the 3 most sensitive currencies to yield differentials (US 10 year yield minus 10 year local currency bond yields) are the Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and Korean won.  As such, Korean won is likely to rally the most in Asia should US yields fall further.   The Chinese yuan has strengthened amid US dollar weakness though underperformance of the Chinese currency is likely versus its peers as the authorities likely aim to weaken it on a trade weighted (CFETS) basis. 

In China, the surprisingly large 15 basis point cut in 5-year loan prime rate last week will be seen as a boon for China’s property market.  However, while support for the property market has increased there does not seem to be much more stimulus ready to be unleashed despite various pledges.  China’s April data slate was weak highlighting the risks of a contraction in GDP this quarter and providing evidence that the “around 5.5%” official growth target looks increasingly out of reach.  COVID restrictions across the country are easing gradually pointing to some pick up in activity though consumption and the service sector are likely to remain under pressure for months to come as mass testing, quarantines and border controls continue to restrict mobility.  

There was relief for China’s markets today as President Biden highlighted the potential for a reduction/removal of tariffs implemented by President Trump, stating that he will discuss tariffs with Treasury Secretary Yellen when he returns from his Asia trip.  Removing tariffs is by no means a done deal given there will be plenty of pressure to maintain some level of US tariffs on China. A reduction in tariffs would be beneficial for the US in that it would help reduce imported inflation pressures while it would also help to support Chinese exports at a time when they are slowing down and adding pressure on China’s current account position.  However, some of this impact would likely be mitigated by a relatively stronger yuan, which would undoubtedly benefit as tariffs were cut.  

Key data and events highlight this week include monetary policy decisions in Indonesia (Tue), New Zealand (Wed), South Korea and Turkey (both Thu).  Federal Reserve FOMC meeting minutes will also be released (Wed). Although not expected by the consensus there is a good chance that Indonesia hikes policy rates by 25 basis points. In New Zealand a 50bp hike is likely while a 25bp hike in South Korea is expected.  In contrast despite pressure on the Turkish lira and very elevated inflation no change in monetary policy is expected in Turkey this week.  Meanwhile the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes will provide further detail on how quickly the Fed wants to get to neutral rates and beyond and on its quantitative tightening policy. 

US Fiscal And UK/EU Brexit Discussions

The worse than expected US jobs report on Friday failed to stop the S&P 500 from registering another record high, but it does put even more pressure on US legislators to agree on a fiscal stimulus deal.  US November non-farm payrolls came in at 245,000, below the 460,000 consensus expectations and while the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7% from 6.9% previously this was all due a drop in the participation rate.  In other words the fact there are less people registering as actively looking for jobs has flattered the unemployment rate. Payrolls growth has slowed sharply and there are still 9.8 million more unemployed compared to February while further COVID restrictions point to more weakness in jobs ahead.  The good news is that some form of compromise is emerging on Capitol Hill, with a bipartisan proposal of $908 billion gaining traction, though frictions remain over aid to states and local governments and liability protections for businesses.

This week is crucial for Brexit transition deal discussions. The weekend phone call between UK PM Johnson and European Commission president von del Leyen made little progress on outstanding issues including fishing rights and level playing field.  Irish PM Martin noted that talks were on “a knife-edge”. European Union leaders are looking for a deal to be agreed upon before the European Council meeting on Thursday though time is running out.  The lack of progress is weighing on the pound (GBP), which took an initial dive this morning before recovering somewhat.  As it stands, the UK will leave the EU on December 31 with or without a deal.   Further complicating matters the UK’s Internal Market Bill, which gives ministers power to rewrite parts of the original Brexit divorce deal, will return to parliament today.

This week’s data and event slate is likely to kick off with upbeat Chinese November trade data; both exports and imports are likely to record healthy increases (Bloomberg consensus: exports 12.0% y/y, imports 7.3% y/y). The data is likely to bode well for risk sentiment, and for Chinese and Asian markets today.  Policy rates decisions in Canada and Europe will be of interest, especially with the European Central Bank (ECB) (Thu) likely to deliver a further easing.  Bank of Canada (Wed) is unlikely to reveal any major changes to policy.  Inflation data in China (Wed) and the US (Thu) are likely to reflect the disinflationary impact of COVID. Finally, the EU Leaders’ Summit may sign off on any Brexit agreement assuming there is one by then while an agreement on the EU Recovery Fund is unlikely to be reached.  

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.

Currencies At Pivotal Levels

Ahead of today’s highly anticipated Fed FOMC meeting markets are holding their breath to determine exactly what the Fed will deliver. The consensus view is for the Fed to announce a programme of $500 billion in asset purchases spread over a period of 6-months. The reaction in currency markets will depend on the risks around this figure. Should the Fed deliver a bigger outcome, say in the region of $1 trillion or above, the US dollar will likely come under renewed pressure. However, a more cautious amount of asset purchases will be US dollar positive.

It has to be noted that the Fed will likely keep its options open and keep the program open ended depending on the evolution of economic data which it will use to calibrate its asset purchases. The USD will likely trade with a soft tone ahead of the Fed outcome, but with so much in the price, it may be wise to be wary of a sell on rumour, buy on fact outcome.

Whatever the outcome many currencies are at pivotal levels against the USD at present, with AUD/USD flirting around parity following yesterday’s surprise Australian rate hike, EUR/USD holding above 1.4000, GBP/USD resuming gains above 1.600 despite a knock back from weaker than forecast construction data, whilst USD/JPY continues to edge towards 80.00. Also, both AUD and CAD are trading close to parity with the USD. The Fed decision will be instrumental in determining whether the USD continues to remain on the weaker side of these important levels.

Going into the FOMC meeting the USD has remained under pressure especially against Asian currencies as noted by the renewed appreciation in the ADXY (a weighted index of Asian currencies) against the USD this week. Although it appears that the central banks in Asia have the green light to intervene at will following the recent G20 meeting the strength of capital inflows into the region is proving to be a growing headache for policy makers. One option is implementing measures to restrict “hot money” inflows but so far no central bank in the region has shown a willingness to implement measures that are deemed as particularly aggressive.

There has been some concern that Asia’s export momentum was beginning to fade as revealed in September exports and purchasing managers index (PMI) data in the region and this in turn could have acted as a disincentive to inflows of capital, resulting in renewed Asian currency weakness. The jury is still out on this front but its worth noting that Korean exports in October reversed a large part of the decline seen over previous months. Moreover, the export orders component of Korea’s PMI remained firm suggesting that exports will resume their recovery.

Nonetheless, manufacturing PMIs have registered some decline in October in much of Asia suggesting some loss of momentum, with weaker US and European growth likely to impact negatively. However, China’s robust PMI, suggests that this source of support for Asian trade will remain solid. Similarly a rise in India’s manufacturing PMI in October driven largely by domestic demand, highlights the resilience of its economy although with inflation peaking its unlikely that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will follow its rate hike on Tuesday with further tightening too quickly.

Speculators bail out of USDs

Risk appetite held up reasonably well last week, with markets failing to be derailed by concerns over Ireland’s banking sector and growing opposition to austerity measures across Europe. The main loser remained the USD, with the USD index hitting a low marginally above 78.00 and speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data revealing a further sharp drop in sentiment to its lowest since Dec 2007.

This week is an important one for central bank meetings, with four major central banks deliberating on monetary policy including Bank of Japan (BoJ), Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE). The major event of the week however, is Friday’s release of the September US employment report. The RBA is set to hike its cash rate by 25bps, the BoJ may announced more easing measures whilst in contrast both the ECB and BoE are unlikely to alter their policy settings.

Whilst the BoJ is widely expected to leave its policy rate unchanged at 0.1%, it may announce further measures against the background of persistent JPY strength, a worsening economic outlook as reflected in last week’s Tankan survey and decline in exports. Japanese press indicate that the BoJ may increase lending of fixed rate 3 to 6 month loans to financial institutions as well as buy more short-term government debt.

The measures alongside risks of further JPY intervention may prevent USD/JPY slipping further but as reflected in the increase in speculative net long JPY positions last week, the market is increasingly testing the resolve of the Japanese authorities. Strong support is seen around USD/JPY 82.80, with the authorities unlikely to allow a break below this technical level in the short-term.

Although we will only see details of the voting in two weeks in the release of the UK BoE Monetary Policy Commitee (MPC) minutes it is likely that there was a three-way split within the MPC as reflected in recent comments, with MPC member Posen appearing to favour more quantitative easing whilst the MPC’s Sentance is set to retain his preference for higher rates. As has been the case over recent months the majority of the MPC are likely to have opted for the status quo.

GBP was a laggard over September as markets continued to fret over potential QE from the BoE. This uncertainty is unlikely to fade quickly suggesting limited gains against the USD and potentially more downside against the EUR. GBP speculative sentiment has improved but notably positioning remains short. EUR/GBP will likely target resistance around 0.8810.

In contrast to GBP the EUR has taken full advantage of USD weakness and looks set to extend its gains. Although there is a risk that speculative positioning will soon become overly stretched it is worth noting that positioning is well below its past highs according to the IMM data. EUR may have received some support from Chinese Premier Wen’s pledge to support Greece, and a stable EUR. Whilst there continues to be risks to the EUR from ongoing peripheral debt concerns such comments likely to be repeated at the EU-Asia summit today and tomorrow, will keep the EUR underpinned for a test of 1.3840.

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