Central Banks and Governments Act To Combat COVID-19. Will It Be Enough?

In just a few weeks the world has changed dramatically.  What was initially seen as a virus localised in Asia has spread throughout the world with frightening speed.  The shocking destruction that COVID-19 has wrought globally in both health and economic terms will not fade quickly.  The virus is destroying complacency in all areas.  Total and complete lock down is becoming key to arrest the virus’ ascent, but many have yet to change their ways, believing that they will be ok.  How naïve is that!

Governments and central banks are finally coming to grips with the economic and health costs, but also the realisation that even in many developed countries, they are woefully unequipped to deal with the health crisis that is unfolding.  Global policy makers and the public at large has gone from a phase of denial, to outright panic and increasingly into fear, which then brings forth the most aggressive responses.

Unfortunately, the lack of global cohesion amongst policy makers has meant that responses have largely been piecemeal and uncoordinated.  Two of the biggest super powers, the US and China, have despite a now forgotten about Phase 1 trade deal, become increasingly acrimonious in their dealings with each other.  This, at a time when the world is looking for leadership, is proving to be major impediment to dealing with the effects of the virus.

It is not all bad news in term of co-ordination.  Central banks globally appear to be acting in unison, even if accidently, in terms of slashing interest rates, aggressively increasing quantitative easing, flushing the financial system with US dollar liquidity and easing some of the regulatory burden on banks.  This has helped to improve market functioning, which increasingly appeared to be breaking down over recent weeks.  It may not however, prevent further pressure on asset markets given the destruction in economic  activity globally.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.  Governments are now stepping up to the plate.  Massive fiscal stimulus plans are being ramped up around the world.  G7 economies have pledged to do “whatever is necessary” and to co-ordinate actions though much has been un coordinated.  US lawmakers are currently deliberating on a stimulus package worth over a $1tn though this could rise significantly in the weeks ahead, Germany is planning to create a EUR 500bn bailout fund, and the UK has announced an “unprecedented” multi billion pound package of measures.  These are but a few of the various stimulus measures being undertaken globally.

China has yet to announce a major stimulus package, but has instead opted for more incremental measures as its economy begins to recover following a major lockdown.  However, just as China’s supply constraints are easing, demand is weakening sharply as economies globally shut down.  The implication is that China’s recovery will not be a quick one either.  More stimulus is likely.  Recent reports suggest China will step up special bond issuance for infrastructure spending, but more is likely.

Overall, the economic shock is just beginning as the health shock is intensifying.  We will need to brace for more pain in the weeks and months ahead.  We can only hope that the measures announced so far and yet to be announced alongside with strict adherence to health recommendations will be sufficient to prevent deeper and longer lasting damage.  The jury is still out.

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.

Pandemonium and Panic

Pandemonium and panic has spread through markets as Greek and related sovereign fears have intensified. The fears have turned a localized crisis in a small European country into a European and increasingly a global crisis.  This is reminiscent of past crises that started in one country or sector and spread to encompass a wide swathe of the global economy and financial markets such as the Asian crisis in 1997 and the recent financial crisis emanating from US sub-prime mortgages.  

The global financial crisis has morphed from a credit related catastrophe to a sovereign related crisis. The fact that many G20 countries will have to carry out substantial and unprecedented adjustments in their fiscal positions over the coming years means the risks are enormous as Greece is finding out. The IMF estimate that Japan, UK, Ireland, Spain, Greece, and the US have to adjust their primary balances from between 8.8 in the US to 13.4% in Japan. Such a dramatic adjustment never been achieved in modern history.

Equity markets went through some major gyrations on Thursday in the US, leading to a review of “unusual trading activity” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in the wake of hundreds of billions of USDs of share value wiped off in the market decline at one point with the Dow Jones index recording its biggest ever points fall before recouping some of its losses. Safe haven assets including US Treasuries, USD and gold have jumped following the turmoil in markets whilst risk assets including high equities, high beta currencies including most emerging market currencies, have weakened. Playing safe is the way to go for now, which means long USDs, gold and Treasuries.

There is plenty of expectation that the G7 teleconference call will offer some solace to markets but this line of thought is destined for disappointment. Other than some words of comfort and support for Greece’s austerity measures approved by the Greek government yesterday, other forms of support are unlikely, including intervention to prop up the EUR. The ECB also disappointed and did not live up to market talk that the Bank could embark on buying of European debt and it is highly unlikely that the G7 will do so either. Into next week it looks like another case of sell on rallies for the EUR.   Remember the parity trade, well it’s coming back into play. 

Aside from the turmoil in the market there has been plenty of attention on UK elections. At the time of writing it looks as though the Conservatives will win most seats but fall short of a an overall majority. A hung parliament is not good news for GBP and the currency is likely to suffer after an already sharp fall over the last few days. GBP/USD may find itself back towards the 1.40 level over the short-term as concerns about the ability of the UK to cut its fiscal deficit grow. A warnings by Moody’s on Friday that the “UK can’t postpone fiscal adjustments any longer” highlights the risk to the UK’s credit ratings and to GBP.

Why Buy Asian FX (Part 2)

The strength of portfolio capital inflows into Asia reflects the outperformance of Asian economies relative to Western economies. Whilst the US, Europe, Japan and UK have struggled to recover from recession and are likely to register only sub-par recovery over the coming months, Asian economies led by China are recovering quickly and strongly. This pattern is set to continue, leading to a widening divergence between Asian and G7 economic growth.

As growth strengthens inflationary pressures are set to build up and Asian central banks will likely raise interest rates more quickly than their G7 counterparts. Already some central banks have moved in this direction, with India, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, having tightened policy. This will be followed by many other central banks in Asia over Q2 2010 including China. Even countries with close trade links to Asia, in particular Australia will rate hikes further over coming months, with Australian interest rates likely to rise to a peak of 5% by year-end.

Given that the US is unlikely to raise interest rates in 2010 higher interest rates across Asia will result in a widening in the interest rate differential with the US leading to more upside potential for Asian currencies as their ‘carry’ attraction increases relative to the USD. The most sensitive Asian currencies to interest rate differentials at present are the Malaysian ringgit (MYR), Thai baht (THB) and Philippines peso (PHP) but I believe that as rates rise in Asia, the sensitivity will increase further for many more Asian currencies.

Most Asian currencies have registered positive performances versus the USD in 2010 led by the MYR and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) and closely followed by the Indian rupee (INR), THB and South Korean won (KRW). The notable exception is China which has been unyielding to pressure to allow the CNY to strengthen. Even China is set to allow some FX appreciation although if the US labels China as a “currency manipulator” it could prove counterproductive and even result in a delay in CNY appreciation.

Looking ahead, the trend of strengthening Asian FX will continue likely led by the likes of the KRW and INR but with the MYR, TWD and IDR not far behind. Stronger growth, higher interest rates, strengthening capital inflows and higher equity markets will contribute to appreciation in Asian currencies over the remainder of the year.

US Dollar Back On Top As Yields Rise

Two issues are driving markets and both are playing negatively for sentiment; the rise in G7 bond yields and the outcome of the EU summit. At a time when G7 bond yields have been pushing higher the poor response to the US $32 billion 7-year note sale contributed to a further increase in yield. The sale resulted in a yield of 3.374%, which was higher than expected, and a bid/cover ratio of 2.61. A combination of large US Treasury supply, medium term funding issues and signs of improving growth suggest no let up for US Treasuries.

The most reactive currency to yield differentials is currently USD/JPY. The 1-month correlation between USD/JPY and US/Japan bond yield differentials is a high 0.85. The spike in US 10-year Treasury yields especially relative to JGB yields (by around 21 basis points this week) is the main contributor to the jump in USD/JPY over recent days. Given the bearish outlook for US bonds in the near term, it suggests more upside for USD/JPY but also increasingly for other currencies against the USD as the importance of yield increases. Immediate USD/JPY technical resistance is seen around 93.21, with support at 91.87.

The other event of note yesterday was developments surrounding Greece in the European Union summit though in truth it was probably the strong comments by ECB President Trichet that had the bigger impact on EUR sentiment. The final EU communiqué noted the readiness for bilateral loans to Greece and substantial International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing in a Greek aid mechanism. Importantly and a likely sop to Germany, any aid will not contain a subsidy for Greece. Aid by the EU and IMF will only be provided in the event of “very serious difficulties”.

The EU agreement means that no money will be forthcoming immediately, but at least there will be a back stop should Greece have financing difficulties over coming weeks, which will act as an important safety net ahead of substantial Greek debt rollovers. This news was supplemented by the fact that ECB will not raise its minimum collateral requirements at the end of the year, which means that Greek debt will not be excluded in the event of a ratings downgrade. This is good news for Greece.

The combination of the fact that Greece will have to borrow money only at market rates, ongoing worries about other EU countries fiscal problems and European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet putting somewhat of a dampener on sentiment by criticizing IMF involvement in the deal, will keep the EUR under pressure. Although Trichet later reversed his comments, the damage was already done and any relief to EUR/USD will be short-lived. The currency pair is increasingly poised for a further downside move, with the next target at 1.3213 on the path towards an eventual test of 1.3000.

Greek Confusion, India Tightening

It is highly interesting that markets could take fright from a rate hike in India but this appears to be what has happened. India’s surprise 25bps rate hike has provoked another bout of risk aversion whilst the lack of any concrete agreement on a framework for a Greek bail out dealt a further blow to confidence. FX tensions between the US and China have not helped, with China threatening retaliation to any US move to name the country as a currency manipulator in the mid April US Treasury report.

Should we really be worried by a rate hike in India or China? Whilst the India rate move reflects the fact that emerging market central banks are moving far more aggressively to raise rates than their G7 counterparts, global fears that India’s move will dampen recovery prospects are unfounded. Monetary tightening in India and China and other economies is taking place against the backdrop of economic strength not weakness.

As such the global impact on growth should be limited. Rising inflation pressure in Asia is reflection of the much quicker economic recovery, relatively low rates and undervalued currencies in the region. Not only will central banks in Asia have to raise interest rates but will also have to allow further currency appreciation.

There is still plenty of confusion about a bail out for Greece ahead of the 25-26th March EU summit. German Chancellor Merkel dampened expectations of a bailout by stating that it was not even on the agenda for the summit. In contrast, EU President Barroso has pushed EU members to agree on an explicit stand-by aid agreement for Greece as soon as possible.

There is also disagreement about whether there should be any IMF involvement, with Germany favouring some help from the Fund whilst France opposes it. Meanwhile, the Greek Prime Minister has reportedly given an ultimatum that should no aid plan be forthcoming at the EU summit, Greece will turn to the IMF for assistance.

All of this suggests more downside for EUR/USD, with a test of support around 1.3422 looming. In the event that the EU summit offers good news for Greece, EUR/USD sentiment could turn quickly so a degree of caution is warranted. Speculative sentiment for the EUR has improved according to the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data for the week to 16th March, with net short EUR positions at their lowest since the beginning of February. Nonetheless, the short covering seen over the past week could come to an abrupt end should there be no aid package for Greece.

The most volatile currency over the past week was GBP/USD and after hitting a high of around 1.5382 it has slid all the way back to around the 1.5000 level. Much of this was related to the gyrations in EUR/USD but GBP took on a life of its own towards the end of the week and has not been helped by comments by BoE MPC member Sentence who highlighted the risk of a “double-dip” recession in the UK.

GBP is highly undervalued and market positioning is close to a record low but a sustainable recovery looks unachievable at present. Attention this week will centre on the 2010 UK Budget announcement and markets will scrutinise the details of how the government plans to cut the burgeoning budget deficit. Failure to restore some credibility to the government’s plans will dent GBP sentiment further and lead to a sharper decline against both the EUR and USD.

What To Watch This Week

As usual the G7 meeting will leave markets with little to chew on. G7 officials maintained their commitment to stimulus measures and timely exit strategies but there was little of note for FX markets aside from the usual comments about wanting to avoid excess FX volatility. There was certainly know step up in pressure on China to strengthen though a report prepared for the meeting did push for countries with inflexible currencies to make adjustments. Meanwhile US officials mouthed the usual “strong dollar” mantra.

Where does this leave markets this week? Well I must admit my bullish view on risk currencies is clearly suffering after a positive start to the year. The pullback in high beta currencies (those with the highest sensitivity to risk aversion) has been dramatic. I have highlighted many of the factors weighing on sentiment in previous posts and whilst I still think the US dollar will find itself under renewed pressure over coming months the current environment remains conducive to more USD and JPY buying and selling of currencies such as the AUD, NZD, CAD, GBP, NOK, SEK, ZAR etc.

Ironically the US and Japan have arguably more severe deficit/debt concerns than some of the European countries under pressure but as most of Japan’s debt is held domestically there is little worry of a collapse in JGBs. Unlike Japan foreign investors hold over half of US debt but are not yet losing confidence with US Treasuries though this may not last unless there is some tangible sign that the burgeoning US budget deficit is being reduced. For now, attention remains firmly focussed on Greece, Spain, Portugal and to a lesser extent Italy.

Like the G7 meeting the US January jobs report released at the end of last week will give little direction for markets. Although the 20k drop in payrolls and revisions to past months were slightly disappointing the surprise drop in the unemployment rate was better news. This week’s data highlights include the January US retail sales report and December trade balance. The sales data is likely to help allay some concerns about faltering economic recovery, with retail sales forecast to rise over the month despite a likely pull back in autos spending.

How will this play out for currencies this week? Overall, the risk off tone is set to continue though the moves are looking increasingly stretched. The USD, JPY and CHF will remain on the front foot whilst risk currencies will remain under pressure. The EUR is set to continue to struggle against the background of eurozone deficit concerns and after its dive through 1.40 last week 1.35 now looms large. Meanwhile, the AUD may also struggle following the recent reassessment of interest rate expectations after the recent Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) meeting in which interest rates were left unchanged.

UK markets will focus on the Quarterly Inflation Report from the Bank of England though the political situation may hold some interesting implications for GBP if polls continue to show that the gap between the governing Labour party and Conservative opposition continues to narrow. Prospects of a hung parliament will hardly hold any positive implications for GBP, a prospect which could limit any potential for GBP to recover ahead of May elections. The drop below 1.60 for Cable (GBP/USD) could extend further, especially as the BoE has kept the door open to further asset purchases if needed.

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