UK Elections and US-China trade: Removing Risk Factors

Following the euphoria over the decisive UK election result and the US/China “Phase 1” trade deal markets look primed to end the year on a positive footing.  Two of the major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end have at least been lifted.  However, some reality may begin to set in early into 2020, with investors recognizing that there are still major issues to be resolved both between the UK and Europe and between the US and China,

Although full details have yet to be revealed, Chinese officials will likely be relieved that the hike in tariffs scheduled for December 15 will now not go ahead. However, there are still questions on how China will ramp up its purchases of US agricultural goods anywhere near the $40-50bn mark that has been touted.

Also the dollar amount of the roll back in US tariffs is relatively small at around $9bn, which hardly moves the needle in terms of helping China’s growth prospects.  “The United States will be maintaining 25 percent tariffs on approximately $250 billion of Chinese imports, along with 7.5 percent tariffs on approximately $120 billion of Chinese imports.”  This still means that a substantial amount of tariffs on Chinese goods remains in place.

According to Trade Rep. Lighthizer, the deal will take effect 30 days after its signing, likely in early January. To sustain any improvement in sentiment around trade prospects there will need to be some concrete progress in removing previous tariffs as well as progress on structural issues (state subsides, technology transfers etc) in any Phase 2 or 3 dealss. The bottom line is that agreement in principle on “Phase 1” will need to be followed by further action soon, otherwise market sentiment will sour.

In the UK Prime Minister Johnson now has the votes to move forward with Brexit on January 31 but that will leave only 11 months to negotiate a deal with the EU. The transition period finishes at the end of 2020 unless of course there is an extension, something that Johnson has ruled out.  In the meantime the immediate focus will turn to the next Bank of England governor replacing Mark Carney.  This decision could take place this week.  Markets will also look to what fiscal steps the government will take in the weeks ahead.

GBP has rallied strongly over recent days and weeks, extending gains in the wake of the Conservative Party election win.  However, further gains will be harder to achieve given the challenges ahead.  UK equities have underperformed this year and are arguably relatively cheap from a valuation perspective, but further gains will also involve removing or at least reducing much of the uncertainty that has kept UK businesses from investing over recent months.  In the near term GBPUSD could struggle to break above 1.35 unless there is progress on the issues noted above.

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GBP/USD struggling above 1.6700

Although the Bank of England meeting is likely to be a non event today from a market perspective GBP/USD is clearly struggling to sustain a move above 1.6700. GBP/USD has breached 1.6700 12 times since mid February but only closed above this level 4 times. Over the near term strong resistance around 1.6769 will cap gains in the currency pair, with GBP continuing to look vulnerable above 1.6700. Some recent misses on the data front have not helped GBP’s cause, suggesting that caution for GBP bulls is warranted. GBP bulls may find more traction versus EUR instead of USD, with EUR/GBP set to come under further downward pressure as the EUR weakens anew. A break below 0.8200 beckons.

JPY, GBP and CHF outlook

USD/JPY blipped above 79.00 in the wake of a report in the Japanese press that states that the Bank of Japan (BoJ) is considering more easing measures at its board meeting on October 30 in order to achieve their 1% inflation goal. Higher US bond yields in the wake of the better than expected US data releases this week are also acting to support USD/JPY.

Given that Japan has effectively been less aggressive than other central bank yet has a fairly ambitious inflation goal, pressure for more aggressive BoJ action should not be surprising. However, in the past the BoJ has underwhelmed and unless US yields continue to push higher, USD/JPY may end up back in its recent ranges. USDJPY 79.23 is a strong initial barrier for the currency pair to cross to establish any move higher.

GBP/USD has edged higher since hitting a low just under 1.60 late last week benefitting in large part from general USD weakness. This is unsurprising given the strong correlation between GBP/USD and the index. However, the true reading of GBP is evident on the crosses and here the picture is far less positive. GBP has lost ground against the EUR and looks set to weaken further.

GBP losses may be limited to around 0.8198 given that interest rate differentials have turned more GBP positive recently. UK retail sales and public finances data today will give further direction and although a bounce back is likely in September sales any positive impact on GBP is likely to be short lived as the currency continues to be restrained by expectations of more BoE QE.

The expectations of a request for Spanish aid and ensuing European Central Bank (ECB) action has managed to alleviate inflows into CHF assets, helping the SNB’s task of protecting its 1.2000 line in the sand for EUR/CHF. Consequently FX reserves growth is likely to slow which in turn will reduce diversification flows from the SNB into other currencies. My forecasts continue to show both EUR/CHF and USD/CHF moving higher by year end.

However, in the short term USD/CHF will edge lower amid general pressure on the USD. Upcoming data releases including trade data today will help give some indication as to whether the SNB’s policy stance is having a positive economic impact. The sharp drop in the CHF nominal effective exchange rate since the implementation of the CHF ceiling will help but there are still many domestic companies calling for a weaker currency.

Euro capped ahead of ECB meeting

Having failed to get above the 1.2650 barrier EUR/USD looks restrained going into today’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting. Reports overnight of a great ‘plan’ to buy bonds up to 3 years in unlimited size in sterilised fashion, helped provide some support to the currency but further gains will be limited. The ECB has already let the cat out of the bag and FX markets are quite correct to go into the ECB meeting with a dose of caution.

How will the EUR react? Given that much of what the ECB will do today has already been leaked the scope for positive surprises is limited, suggesting any upside for EUR will be capped although comments on yield targets (if any), conditionality, and the seniority issue will be important.

Profit taking, lowered expectations over recent days and uncertainty ahead of the US jobs report tomorrow will limit the damage to the currency, however. A drop to support around 1.2431 is the most that can be expected in the short term.

Unlike a likely rate cut from the ECB the Bank of England (BoE) is set to stay pat having embarked on further asset purchases in July. Weaker growth and upside inflation risk do not make for an enviable concoction. Although I anticipate further asset purchases later in the year, further action today is unlikely. This will mean that EUR/GBP in particular will lack independent direction and continue to track moves in EUR/USD (very strong sensitivity over the last 3-months). Given the potential for some further short term slippage in EUR/USD, EUR/GBP will likely follow suit.

As for GBP/USD it will struggle to sustain a break above this week’s high of 1.5935 unless US payrolls data tomorrow disappoints. Long speculative positioning means that GBP is vulnerable to profit taking especially having strengthened by over 3% since the beginning of June. The 28 August low around 1.5754 will provide near term support.

JPY pullback risks, GBP to slip versus USD

A combination of market friendly comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke, a better than expected outcome for the German IFO business confidence survey in March and hopes of a bolstering of the Eurozone bailout fund, have managed to lift risk assets while pressuring the USD. Markets appear to have shaken off, at least for now, growth worries emanating from weaker manufacturing confidence surveys in China and Europe last week.

Nonetheless, while Bernanke maintained that accommodative monetary policy is still required especially given concerns about the jobs market, he did not hint at more quantitative easing, suggesting that market optimism may be tempered in the days ahead. Data and events today include US and French consumer confidence as well as bill auctions in Spain and Italy. US consumer confidence is likely to slip slightly while the bill auctions are likely to be well received.

While I remain bearish on the JPY in the medium term (beyond 1 month), over the near term I believe there is scope for a pull back. The move in USD/JPY has gone beyond what would be expected by the shift in relative yields. This is corroborated by my short term quantitative model which shows that USD/JPY should be trading around 80.

The speculative market is positioned for JPY weakness but also points to some scope for short covering; both CFTC IMM data and Japanese TFX data (a gauge of local margin trading positioning) reveal significant short JPY positions. If as I expect, USD/JPY does pull back it will offer better levels for investors to initiate medium term JPY bearish trades.

Ultimately the JPY will regain its attraction as a funding currency for carry trades and the bigger the shift in relative yield with the US, the more the potential for capital outflows from Japan into higher yielding assets.

GBP has failed to sustain gains above 1.59 against the USD over recent weeks let alone manage to test the psychologically important 1.60 level. The current bounce above 1.59 is unlikely to last. It will require a renewed downtrend in the USD in general provoked by a sharp improvement in risk appetite and/or a drop in US bond yields for GBP to move much higher. Neither seems likely.

Indeed, GBP will be vulnerable to a general firmer USD over the remainder of the year. While I would not suggest playing a bullish call on GBP versus the USD I think there is much more juice in holding GBP versus EUR, with downside risks to this currency pair likely to open up. Indeed, my quantitative models reveal that GBP is mispriced against both EUR and AUD.

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