Taking Stock

As we get to the end of the week trade headlines are still continuing to capture most attention. However, it has been increasingly difficult for anyone to guess what comes next in the long running trade war between the US and China.  Most investors and analysts think the trade war will persist for a long while but President Trump tweeted that it would “fairly short” and that talks with China were on track to resume next months.

Markets are not convinced and becoming increasingly desensitised to the news flow over trade, which seems to shift from good to bad news on a regular basis.  For example, the decision to delay the imposition of tariffs on around $156bn of Chinese exports until December failed to fuel a bounce in US equities. The decision has also left Chinese officials unperturbed.  China has vowed to retaliate, stating that the US had “deviated from the correct track of consultation and settlement of differences”.

The situation in Hong Kong is adding another dimension to the trade war.   President Trump has said that believed China’s President Xi could “work that out in a humane fashion” while in contrast many in the US Congress are pushing for a stronger stance. The eventual reaction will depend on whether demonstrations persist and how China moves going forward.

Hong Kong’s economy and markets are under pressure too, unsurprisingly. The economy is now facing the prospect of a technical recession, with growth in the third quarter likely to be negative following a -0.3% q/q drop in GDP in the second quarter.   Industry bodies have revealed that tourism has dropped sharply, with double digit declines in hotel occupancy and sharp reductions in purchases by mainland tourists. The number of tour groups from mainland China have declined by close to 30% in June compared to the average this year while hotel occupancy rates are expected to drop 40% y/y in July.


Losing Your Addiction

An interesting thing happened to me last week. On a business trip to Europe my blackberry broke and failed to work for the rest of the week. I felt like an addict coming off an addiction. The first couple of days were very tough; my usual instinct to constantly check for messages resulted in constant fidgeting and major withdrawal symptoms.

Once this had worn off I must admit I felt liberated. My addiction gone, it felt great to be weaned off my crackberry. The message here is that life goes on without access to mail. It’s an experience I would recommend to all users of such devices.

Back to reality and my view from Hong Kong this week is as follows. The risk-off tone as reflected in related to the turmoil in Libya and the increase in oil prices (as supply concerns intensify), may help to limit the pressure on the USD this week, but the overall tone is set to remain weak.

Much will depend on this week’s key US data releases and a testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the US Senate, to determine whether the USD will find a more stable footing. Clearly the more hawkish tone of the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE) in contrast to the lack of inclination by the Fed towards a tighter monetary policy stance could undermine the USD.

In this respect, it is doubtful that Bernanke will change his stance of the Fed failing to meet its dual mandate due to too low inflation. The main event is the February US jobs report at the tail end of the week. The consensus expectation of a 190k increase in payrolls will be finalised after gaining more clues from the US February ISM surveys and ADP jobs report earlier in the week. The week’s releases will likely reveal further improvements in US economic data, but given that this will do little to budge the Fed’s stance, the USD may be left somewhat underwhelmed.

The intensification in risk aversion over recent days has also been felt in the Eurozone periphery where bond market pressures have resumed. Nonetheless, the fallout on the EUR has been limited by hawkish ECB jawboning. Thursday’s ECB meeting will surely maintain this stance, and following the release of data on Tuesday likely to show a further increase in inflation in February, upside inflation risks are likely to be highlighted by ECB President Trichet in the press conference.

A likely pre-emptive strike from the ECB cannot be ruled out. Two rate hikes in H2 2011 are now likely even as the Bank maintains liquidity support for weaker peripherals. No change in policy but a hawkish press statement on Thursday will on the face of it play for a firmer EUR but i) the fact that the market has already discounted the possibility of early rate hikes and ii) the proximity of the US payrolls data on Friday and iii) uncertainty over the impact of the Irish election outcome in which the Fine Gael party won a clear victory, suggest that EUR risks are asymmetric. The net long positioning overhang also points to some downside risks to EUR.

There are plenty of other events and data on the calendar this week including Japan’s slate of month end releases, interest rate decisions by the Reserve Bank of Australia and Bank of Canada, UK PMI manufacturing survey data and Swedish Q4 GDP data.

The bottom line is that currencies will be driven by the conflicting influences of improving economic data on the one hand and elevated risk aversion on the other. The main beneficiaries of higher risk aversion will be the CHF and JPY though both have risen far whilst the USD will be restrained by a dovish Fed.

In contrast the EUR and GBP may yet extend gains but in both cases, markets have already shifted policy tightening expectations sharply over recent weeks and we suspect EUR/USD will be capped at resistance around 1.3860, whilst GBP/USD will similarly struggle to break its year high around 1.6279.

Tarnishing The Euro

I am just finishing up a client trip in Japan and waiting to take a flight back to Hong Kong. The time ahead of the flight has allowed some reflection on my meetings here. One thing that has been particularly evident is the strong interest in all events European. Some I have spoken to have wondered out loud whether this the beginning of the end of the European project.  At the least it is evident that fiscal/debt problems in Greece and elsewhere in Europe have tarnished the image of the EUR.

Markets continue to gyrate on any news about Greece and the potential for support from the Europe Union and/or IMF. The divergent views between European countries about how to deal with the problem has intensified, suggesting that reaching an agreement will not be easy. Some countries including the UK and Sweden have suggested enrolling the help of the IMF but this has been resisted by other European countries. Germany and France are trying to rally support ahead of today’s crucial meeting of European officials.

The EUR reacted positively to news that some form of support package is being considered but nothing concrete has appeared yet, leaving markets on edge. The EUR has been heavily sold over recent weeks; speculative market positioning reached a record low in the latest week’s CFTC Commitment of Traders’ IMM report. The fact that EUR positioning has become so negative suggests that the EUR could rebound sharply in the event that some support package for Greece is announced.

Any package will not come without strings attached, however, as European officials will want to avoid any moral hazard. A couple of options hinted at by German officials include fresh loans or some form of plan to purchase Greek debt. Either way, any solution to Greece’s problems will not be quick and will likely result in a sharp contraction in economic activity as the government cuts spending especially as Greece does not have the option of the old remedy of devaluing its currency. Meanwhile, strikes and social tensions in the country could escalate further. A solution for Greece will only constitutes around 2.5% of eurozone GDP will also not prevent focus from continuing to shift to Portugal, Spain and other countries with fiscal problems despite comments by Moody’s ratings agency to differentiate between the countries.

Even if the EUR rebounds on any positive news about support for Greece any relief is likely to prove temporary and will provide better levels to sell into to play for a medium term decline in the currency. Ongoing fiscal concerns, a likely slower pace of economic recovery, divergencies in views of European officials, and the fact that the EUR is still overvalued suggests that the currency will depreciate over much of 2010, with a move to around EUR/USD 1.30 or below in prospect over coming months.

Gold / FX correlations

There is no shortage of cash rich investors in Asia even amidst the current troubles in Dubai. Indeed, sentiment in the gemstones market is particularly upbeat, with a rare five-carat pink diamond selling for a record HK$84.24 million in Hong Kong. Perhaps this is a good reflection of abundant liquidity and of course wealth in Asia and in particular China, with talk that mainland Chinese investors were strong participants in the diamond auction.

It’s not just diamonds that are selling for record prices; gold hit a fresh high above $1,200 and once again at least part of this is attributable to the appetite of Asian central banks as well as demand from China as the country tries to increase its gold reserves. The rise in gold prices has coincided with a bullish announcement from the world’s top gold producer that it has completely eliminated its market hedges earlier than forecast due to the positive outlook on prices and waning supply.

The correlation between gold prices and the USD remains very strong at -0.88 over the last 3-months, with firmer gold prices, implying further USD weakness. In fact, the gold / USD correlation has been consistently strong over the past few months and is showing little sign of diminishing.

Over the past 6-months the correlation has been -0.91 and over the past 1-month it was -0.75.  Assuming that anything above 0.70 can be considered statistically significant, the relationship shows that USD weakness has been well correlated with gold strength and that despite talk of a breakdown in the relationship it appears to remain solid. 

As long as the bullish trend in gold continues, the pressure on the USD will remain in place.  Adding to this pressure is the fact that risk is back on for now. Markets took the news of a fall in the ISM manufacturing index and in particular the drop in the employment component in its stride even though it supports the view of a weaker than consensus drop in payrolls in November when it is published on Friday.

There are still plenty of reasons to be cautious in the weeks ahead and although we appear to be back in a “risk on” environment markets are likely to gyrate between “risk on” and “risk off” over coming weeks. At least for now, the USD looks to remain under pressure but if risk aversion creeps back up as I suspect it may then the USD will see a bit more resilience into year end. 

Moreover, central banks globally are reaching the limits of their tolerance of USD weakness and will be tested once again, with EUR/USD back above 1.5000, EUR/CHF moving back below 1.5100 and the USD/JPY set to re-test 85.00 following the relatively benign measures announced by the BoJ in which the Bank did little to stem deflationary pressure or weaken the JPY.

Anxiety over Swine flu

Although I have been writing about various factors that could derail the rally in equity markets and improvement in risk appetite over recent weeks I did not envisage that a virus such as Swine flu would be one of the factors to consider. However, it is and the stress and anxiety about its effects on the economy and of course health are rising rapidly.

In Hong Kong where I have been based for the last 8 months the concerns are particularly acute. Exposed from a high proportion of tourism as a percent of GDP, high population density and its importance as an air travel hub, Hong Kong is somewhat more sensitive than many other countries. Moreover, the memories of SARS and its devastating impact on the economy still linger for many people. A local paper revealed such tensions in its headline, “its creeping closer”

Nonetheless, there is little in terms of concrete evidence to go on and outside of Mexico the health impact of the virus has not been as severe. Even in Mexico there have been conflicting reports about the actual amount of deaths, with some putting it at a much smaller number. Until there is some clarity markets will continue to react to the uncertainty. The rapid spread of the flu has sparked fears of a global pandemic but it has yet to be categorized as such.

Risk indicators have not yet reacted sharply even if equity markets have been hit over recent days, suggesting that at the least there is not a panic in markets. Even the usual FX beneficiaries of higher risk aversion such as the US dollar and Japanese yen have not strengthened and remain in a broad range. It is difficult to predict the damage from the flu and much depends on its severity and how much it spreads but the relative calm in the market is at least encouraging for now.

%d bloggers like this: