ECB to Hike, BoJ, BoE & RBA on Hold

The better than expected March US jobs report will likely help to shift the debate further towards the hawkish camp in the Fed. There is little this week to match the potency of payrolls in terms of market moving data this week. Instead attention will focus on a raft of Fed speakers over coming days as well as the minutes of the March 15 FOMC meeting.

This week’s Fed speakers include Lockhart, Evans, Bernanke, Kocherlakota, Plosser and Lacker. Of these only Lockhart and Lacker are non voters. Given the intense focus on recent Fed comments FX markets will be on the lookout for anything that hints a broader Fed support for a quicker hike to interest rates and/or reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet.

In any case the USD may struggle to make much headway ahead of an anticipated European Central Bank (ECB) rate hike of 25 basis point on Thursday. Much will depend on the press statement, however. If the ECB merely validates market expectations of around 75bps of policy rate hikes this year the EUR will struggle to rally.

It may also be possible that once the ECB meeting is out of the way the EUR may finally be susceptible to pressure related to ongoing peripheral tensions. Last week the outcome of the Irish bank stress tests, and political vacuum in Portugal ahead of elections set for June 5 were well absorbed by the EUR but it is questionable whether the dichotomy between widening peripheral bond spreads and the EUR can continue.

The Tankan survey in Japan released today unsurprisingly revealed a deterioration in sentiment. The survey will provide important clues for the Bank of Japan (BoJ) at its meeting on April 6 & 7th. Although a shift in Japan’s ultra easy monetary policy is unlikely whilst strong liquidity provision is set to continue, pressure to do more will likely grow. This will be accentuated by a likely downward revision in the economic outlook by the BoJ.

The JPY will not take much direction from this meeting. Nonetheless, its soft tone may continue helped by foreign securities outflows (particularly out of bonds), with USD/JPY eyeing the 16 December high around 84.51. Speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals a sharp deterioration in JPY sentiment as the currency evidence that finally the currency maybe regaining its mantle of funding currency.

It is still too early for the Bank of England to hike rates despite elevated inflation readings and MPC members are likely to wait for the May Quarterly Inflation Report before there is decisive shift in favour of raising policy rates. Even then, members will have to grapple with the fact that economic data remains relatively downbeat as reflected in the weaker than expected March manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) data.

Today’s PMI construction data will likely paint a similar picture. The fact that a rate hike is not expected by the market will mean GBP should not suffer in the event of a no change decision by the BoE this week but instead will find more direction from a host of data releases including industrial production. GBP has come under growing pressure against the EUR since mid February and a test of the 25 October high of 0.89415 is on the cards this week.

Finally, congratulations to the Indian cricket team who won a well deserved victory in the Cricket World Cup final over the weekend. The celebrations by Indians around the world will go on for a long while yet.

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FX sensitivities to yield differentials

A lot has been made about the hawkish language from a few Federal Reserve FOMC members over recent days and growing speculation about whether quantitative easing (QE2) will end earlier than initially planned. In turn, this has been noted as a positive factor for the USD. Undoubtedly there are a few in the Fed who are becoming more nervous about current policy settings but it is highly unlikely that the Fed will not complete its $600 billion in planned asset purchases by the end of June.

The biggest imponderable is how and when the Fed begins its exit policy and how effectively/efficiently it can be done. Whilst it is likely to be over a year before the Fed Funds rate is hiked, the USD will be sensitive to balance sheet reduction. Moreover, the way in which the Fed reduces the size of the balance will also be important given the likely active approach to liquidity withdrawal required.

For the present, it should be noted that even with the hawkish Fed rhetoric and increase in US bond yields (2 year yields have risen by close to 25bps over the last couple of weeks) the USD is actually lower versus EUR than where it was two weeks ago. The reality is that German bund yields have risen by even more than US yields ahead of the anticipated European Central Bank (ECB) rate hike on 7 April (the case for which appears to have been sealed by the above consensus 2.6% YoY reading for March eurozone CPI).

However, I would be cautious about ascribing general FX moves at present to yield / interest rate differentials given that it is only EUR crosses (including EUR/JPY, EUR/GBP, EUR/CAD, and EUR/USD) that hold a statistically significant relationship with yields. All of this implies EUR crosses look supported ahead of the upcoming ECB meeting, with EUR/USD unlikely to sustain a drop below 1.4000 ahead of the rate decision. What happens after depends on the press conference. Bearing in mind that markets have already priced in 75bps of rate hikes by the ECB it would take an even stronger tone from the ECB to push the EUR higher, something that looks unlikely

Risk on, US dollar pressure

FX markets have plenty of different factors to digest these days and after a harrowing couple of weeks markets began this week on a firmer footing. The overall tone into this week is to load up on risk assets. News that the nuclear situation in Japan may closer to stabilising has helped, whilst markets easily shook off another hike in China’s reserve ratio and ongoing conflict in Libya as Allied forces step up their campaign in the face of continuing resistance from Gaddafi’s forces.

Improved risk appetite has helped to keep the JPY on the defensive along with the continued threat of FX intervention, with further official JPY selling likely in the days ahead. Interestingly the intervention last Friday was estimated at only JPY 530 billion ($6.2 billion), much lower than previously thought. USD/JPY 80 remains a major line in the sand and any sign of another breach of this level will likely be met with official JPY selling. I suspect that the Japanese authorities will not be content until USD/JPY is far higher. In this respect its worth noting an official report released earlier in March highlighting that Japanese companies are not profitable at a USD/JPY rate below 86.

The EUR looks overbought around the 1.42 level but seems to be a beneficiary of Japanese FX intervention (perhaps a recycling of USDs into EUR) as well as comments by European Central Bank (ECB) Council members reiterating their intention to hike the refi policy rate, likely at the April ECB meeting. In a similar vein to the recycling of intervention USDs into EUR, Middle East entities may also be recycling petrodollars into EUR whilst news that Russia has permitted one of its oil related funds to buy Spanish debt has given a lift to sentiment for the EUR. Over the near term EUR/USD may struggle to make much headway above 1.42, with further direction coming from the EU leaders meeting on 24/25 March.

GBP is also doing well, having jumped close to the 1.6400 level versus USD, with UK February CPI giving the currency a further lift. The outcome at 4.4% YoY, which was not as bad as rumoured but in any case worse than consensus will give the hawks in the Bank of England MPC further ammunition to push for a policy rate hike. The fact that core inflation also increased suggests that the jump in headline inflation cannot merely be brushed under the table. A BoE rate hike is increasingly looking like a done deal. Renewed inflation worries in the UK and the hawkish rhetoric from ECB officials is sufficient to keep the USD under pressure.

ECB In Focus

The highlight today is the European Central Bank (ECB) council meeting. Markets have priced in a hawkish stance from the ECB; Euro rates have edged higher whilst EUR/USD has strengthened. The ECB is likely to highlight worries about price developments today paving way for a hike in H2 2011. Watch for any shift in the balance of risks statement in the press conference and upward revisions to inflation and growth forecasts. In terms of liquidity operations the full allotment procedures at the Main Refinancing Operations (MRO) are likely to be extended for another three months.

EUR risks are asymmetric and whilst the currency remains a buy on dips (with technical indicators pointing to a move to 1.4000) the bigger risk is if the ECB does not live up to the hawkish market expectations which could hit EUR given long positioning overhang. Other than this, risk aversion remains elevated according to my barometer, supporting JPY and CHF. US numbers remain upbeat as seen in the ADP private sector jobs report yesterday, which will likely lead to an upward revision to non-farm payrolls forecasts in February (currency consensus 195k). However, the USD impact of positive data is limited against the background of a relatively dovish Fed stance.

Interest rate and FX gyrations

Following a brief rally at the start of the year the USD has found itself under growing pressure in the wake of widening interest rate differentials versus many other currencies. In particular, the contrasting stance between the hawkish rhetoric (bias for tighter monetary conditions) from European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet and the relatively dovish US Federal Reserve stance as highlighted in the 26th January FOMC statement has provided more fuel to the widening in interest rate expectations between the US and eurozone. Since the end of last year interest rate differentials have widened by around 31 basis points in favour of the EUR (second general interest rate futures contract).

The Fed remains committed to carrying out its full $600 billion of asset purchases by end Q2 2011 whilst the ECB appears to be priming the market for a scaling back of its liquidity operations. Whilst there may be more juice in EUR over the short term based on the move in interest rate differentials as well as improved sentiment towards the eurozone periphery the upside potential for EUR/USD is looking increasingly limited. Even European officials are beginning to inject a dose of caution, with the ECB’s Nowotny stating that markets are too euphoric over a potential enlargement of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund. Indeed, it is highly likely that the euphoria fades quickly once it becomes apparent that enlarging the bailout fund is by no means a panacea to the region’s ailments.

GBP is another currency that has undergone sharp gyrations over recent days in the wake of a shift in interest rate expectations. A surprise 0.5% quarterly drop in UK Q4 GDP (which could not all be blamed on poor weather) set the cat amongst the pigeons and gave a GBP a thrashing but much of this was reversed following the release of Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes which revealed a hawkish shift within the MPC, with two dissenters voting for a rate hike and most members agreeing that the risks to inflation has probably shifted higher.

Does this imply an imminent rate hike? No, a policy rate hike closer to the end of the year appears more likely. BoE Governor King provided support to this view, in a speech that was interpreted as dovish, with the governor once again highlighting the temporary nature of the current rise in inflation pressure. Consequently UK interest rate expectations have shifted back and forth over recent days, but still remain wider relative to the US since the start of the year. GBP/USD has of course benefitted, but given worries about growth and the dovish message from King, it is unlikely that rate differentials will widen much further. Consequently GBP/USD is unlikely to make much if any headway above 1.6000.

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