Asian currencies vulnerable to equity outflows

Asian currencies are set to continue to trade cautiously. One big headwind to further appreciation is the fact that there has been a substantial outlook of equity capital over recent weeks. Over the last month to date Asian equity markets have registered an outflow of $3.3 billion in outflows. However, whilst Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and India have seen outflows Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam have registered inflows.

The net result is that equity capital inflows to Asia so far this year are almost flat, a stark contrast from 2009 and 2010 when inflows were much higher at the same point in the year. The odds for further strong inflows do not look good, especially as the Fed ends QE2 by the end of June. While a sharp reversal in capital flows is unlikely, it also seems unlikely that Asia will register anywhere near as strong inflows as the last couple of years.

This will have a significant impact on Asian currencies, whose performance mirrors capital flows into the region. Almost all Asian currencies have dropped against the USD so far this month and could remain vulnerable if outflows continue. Given the relative stability of the USD over recent weeks and imminent end to QE2, the better way to play long Asia FX is very much against the increasingly vulnerable EUR.

The THB has been the worst performing currency this month but its weakness has been attributable to upcoming elections on July 3, which has kept foreign investor sentiment cautious. Thailand has seen an outflow of $812mn from its equity market this month. Polls show the PM Abhisit’s party trailing the opposition and nervousness is likely to persist up to the elections at least. THB weakness is not likely to persist over coming months, with USD/THB forecast at 29.2 by year end.

USD/KRW has been whipsawed over the past week but made up ground despite a continued outflow of equity capital over recent days. KRW has been particularly resilient despite a firmer USD environment and a drop in consumer sentiment in June. Next week the KRW will likely continue to trade positively, helped by a likely firm reading for May industrial production on Thursday. USD/KRW is set to trade in a 1070-1090 range, with direction likely to come from Greece’s parliament vote on its austerity measures.

TWD has traded weaker in June, having been one of the worst performing currencies over the month. USD/TWD does not have a particularly strongly correlation with movements in the USD or risk aversion at present but the currency has suffered from a very sharp outflow of equity capital over recent weeks (biggest outflow out of all Asian countries so far this month). Next week’s interest rate decision on Thursday by the central bank (CBC) will give some direction to the TWD but a 12.5bps increase in policy rates should not come as a big surprise. TWD is likely to trade with a weaker bias but its losses are likely to be capped around the 29.00 level versus USD.

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RBA on hold, RBI hikes rates

News of the death of Osama Bin Laden gave the USD a lift and its gains have extended for a second day. Extreme short market positioning as well as increasing risk aversion (perhaps due to worries about retaliation following Bin Laden’s death) have helped the USD.

However, the boost to the USD could be short-lived in the current environment in which it remains the preferred global funding currency. Indeed, the fact that US bond yields have dropped sharply over recent weeks continues to undermine the USD against various currencies.

The USD firmed despite the US ISM manufacturing index dropping slightly, albeit from a high level. The survey provided some useful clues to Friday’s US jobs report, with the slight decline in the employment component of the ISM survey to 62.7 consistent with a 200k forecast for April payrolls.

Ahead of the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting on Thursday hawkish rhetoric from new Council member and Bundesbank chief Weidmann (replacing Weber) and more reassurances from Greek and EU officials that there will be no debt restructuring or haircut on the country’s debt has helped the EUR although it is notable that it could not sustain a foot hold above 1.49. Eurozone bond yields have risen by around 20bps compared to US yields over the past month, a fact that suggests that the EUR may not fall far in the short-term.

USD/JPY is trading dangerously close to levels that may provoke FX intervention by the Japanese authorities. General USD weakness fuelled a drop in USD/JPY which has been exacerbated by a rise in risk aversion over recent days (higher risk aversion usually plays in favour of a stronger JPY). The biggest determinant of the drop in USD/JPY appears to a narrowing in bond yields (2-year bond yields have narrowed by around 20bps over the past month) largely due to a rally in US bonds.

Unsurprisingly the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left its cash rate on hold at 4.75%. The accompanying statement showed little inclination to hike rates anytime soon, with credit growth noted as modest, pressure from a stronger exchange rate on the traded sector and temporary prices shocks which are expected to dissipate. The only indication that rates will eventually increase is the view that longer term inflation is expected to move higher.

I look for further rate hikes over coming months even with the AUD at such a high level. AUD has lost a bit of ground after hitting a high just above 1.10 against the USD and on the margin the statement is slightly negative for AUD. A slightly firmer USD overall and stretched speculative positioning, with IMM AUD positions close to their all time high, points to some downside risks in the short-term.

In contrast India’s central bank the RBI hiked interest rates by more than many expected. Both the repo and reverse repo rates were raised by 50bps, with the central bank governor highlighting renewed inflation risks in his statement. The decision reveals a shift in RBI rhetoric to an even more hawkish bias in the wake of rising inflation pressures, which should be beneficial to the rupee.

Financial Times Guest post: Rupee can serve as a reserve currency too

Please see below an excerpt from the Financial Times beyondbrics section in which I wrote a guest post about the Indian rupee.

Amidst the euphoria surrounding the internationalisation of China’s currency, the renminbi, attention on the Indian rupee appears to have fallen into the shadows. Admittedly China has been announcing new measures on the path to internationalisation almost on a weekly basis whilst India appears to have taken a more gradual approach, but it’s not too late for India to regain some of the limelight.

Perhaps it is surprising that the rupee is hardly talked about when discussing reserve currencies. The last BIS Triennial Survey of FX market activity revealed that the rupee accounted for 0.9 per cent (the same as the Russian rouble) of daily foreign exchange market turnover, which may seem small compared to the 84.9 per cent of turnover accounted for by the USD or 39.1 per cent by the EUR but is still ahead of many other developing currencies including China, which accounts for only 0.3 per cent of turnover. Moreover, India’s share of turnover has risen steadily from 0.1 per cent in 1998.

Read the rest at http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/04/14/guest-post-rupee-can-serve-as-a-reserve-currency-too/

Equity Flow Reversal Supports Asian FX

Asian currencies have rebounded smartly from their post Japan earthquake lows on March 16. The ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asia Currency index) is now at its highest level since September 1997 reflecting a sharp rebound in capital inflows to the region. The performance of Asian currencies continues to correspond closely with the movement in capital flows.

Although almost all Asian equity markets have registered outflows so far this year (total equity outflows -$6.2bn), the trend is reversing. Over the past month there has been a major slowing in capital outflows for most countries in Asia whilst India, Thailand and the Philippines have actually registered sizeable inflows. South Korea is notable in that there has been a sharp increase in equity capital inflows over the past week.

Although there has been much focus on a rotation of capital flows out of Asia and into developed economies this year, it is worth noting that the pattern of equity flows in Q1 2011 has not been too different from that witnessed in the past couple of years. In both 2009 and 2010 equity outflows were recorded over the two (2010) or three (2009) months of the year before a reversal took place. This pattern looks like it is repeating itself.

Clearly the environment for Asian equity markets is not as supportive as it was last year given the belated tightening in monetary policies being undertaken by many central banks and prospects of an end to QE2 in the US. Whilst this will result in some reduction in capital flows to the region compared to last year, the overall outlook is positive. Easing risk aversion (our risk aversion barometer has already reversed all of its post Japan earthquake spike and is trending lower), positive growth outlook and maintenance of low US rates point to more inflows.

One currency in particular that will benefit is KRW, with a further drop in USD/KRW likely over coming weeks. KRW has already strengthened by around by around 2.7% since its post Japan earthquake low making it the best performing currency since then. Further gains are likely; a test of USD/KRW 1100 is on the cards in the short-term, with the year end target standing at 1050.

Why buy KRW? 1) Korea has registered the biggest improvement in equity capital flows recently, 2) KRW has been the most sensitive Asian currency to risk over the past month and therefore benefits the most as risk appetite improves, 3) Estimated Price/Earnings ratio for Korean equities looks cheap compared to its historical z-score according to our estimates. As a result our quantitative model on USD/KRW based on commodity prices, risk aversion and equity performance highlights the potential for significantly more KRW strength.

Global Themes

It’s definitely been a strange start to the year, with markets taking plenty of time to get their bearings. Some general themes have developed but none have provided clear direction. As a result, the path over coming weeks and months is likely to remain highly volatile and in this respect, currencies, equities and bonds will continue to see strong gyrations.

One theme that has been evident since the start of the year is an improvement in sentiment towards the eurozone periphery as hopes of an enlargement/extension of the European Union bailout fund (EFSF) have increased. This is a key reason why the EUR has strengthened this year although nervousness on this front appears to have returned over recent days (note the recent widening in peripheral bond spreads, drop in EUR and European Central Bank purchases of Portuguese debt). It seems that a lot of good news has already been discounted in relation to the eurozone periphery and now markets are in wait and see mode for the EU Council meeting on 24/25 March. There is a strong chance that eventually market expectations will prove overly optimistic and the EUR will drop but more on that later.

The second theme is global inflation concerns, driven by higher food and energy prices. Certainly this has had an impact on interest rate expectations and in some cases resulted in a hawkish shift in central bank language, notably in the eurozone and UK. Although European Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet has toned down his comments on tighter monetary policy compared to the more hawkish rhetoric following the last ECB council meeting, expectations for monetary tightening in the eurozone still look overly hawkish, with a policy rate hike currently being priced in for August/September this year, which looks way too early. The EUR has benefitted from the relative tightening in eurozone interest rate expectations compare to the US but will suffer if and when such expectations are wound down.

Elsewhere in many emerging markets the impact of higher food prices is finding its way even more quickly into higher inflation, forcing central banks to tighten policy. In Asia, the urgency for higher rates is even more significant given that real interest rates (taking into account inflation) are negative in many countries. China has accelerated the pace of its rate hikes over recent months and looks set to continue to tighten policy much further to combat inflation. In India, worries about inflation and the need for further monetary tightening have clearly weighed on equity markets, with more pain to come. Although not the sole cause by any means, in the Middle East and Africa higher food prices are feeding social tensions such as in Egypt.

Another clear theme that has developed is the improvement in US economic conditions. The run of US data over recent months has been encouraging, confirming that the economy is gaining momentum. Even the disappointing January non-farm payrolls report has not dashed hopes of recovery, with many other job market indicators pointing to strengthening job conditions such as the declining trend in weekly US jobless claims. Manufacturing, business and consumer confidence measures have strengthened whilst credit conditions are easing, albeit gradually. The US economy is set to outperform many other major economies this year, especially the eurozone, which will be beset with a diverging growth outlook between northern and southern Europe.

Although the US dollar has not yet benefitted from stronger US growth given the still dovish tone of the Fed and ongoing asset purchases in the form of quantitative easing, the rise in US bond yields relative to other countries, will likely propel the dollar higher over 2011 after a rocky start over Q1 2011. In contrast, the EUR at current levels looks too strong and as noted above, hopes of a resolution of eurozone peripheral problems look overdone. EUR/USD levels above 1.3500 provide attractive levels to short the currency. Other growth currencies that will likely continue to do well are commodity currencies such as AUD, NZD and CAD, whilst the outlook for Asian currencies remains positive even despite recent large scale capital outflows. The JPY however, will be one currency that suffers from an adverse yield differential with the US as US bond yields rise relative to Japan.

Econometer.org has been nominated in FXstreet.com’s Forex Best Awards 2011 in the “Best Fundamental Analysis” category. The survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fx_awards_2011

China Hikes Rates, More On the Cards

In an otherwise unexciting day China livened things up by raising its 1 year deposit and lending rates by 25 basis points. The hike, the third in the last four months, should not have come as a surprise, given the growing emphasis by China’s central bank PBoC, to dampen inflation pressures. Indeed, more hikes are on the cards, with at least another two more in prospect over H1. The other tool to combat inflation is CNY appreciation further gains in the currency over coming months should be expected to around 6.3 by year-end versus USD.

Global markets largely shrugged of China’s move, with generally positive market sentiment continuing. Even in the eurozone, where there was some disappointment at the surprise drop in German December industrial production, market sentiment continued to improve as Egypt and local debt worries eased further. EUR was particularly resilient despite calls from a Belgian think tank that Greece needs to restructure its debt to avoid a long and painful path ahead. Commodity currencies also showed impressive resilience to China’s rate hike, with both the AUD and NZD holding up well.

The overall positive risk background is supportive for Asian currencies and other risk trades. Currencies in Asia remain highly correlated with portfolio capital inflows and so far this year the weakness in the INR and THB has matched the strong equity outflows from India and Thailand. However, this appears to be reversing, especially in the case of India registering positive equity flows this month, helping the INR to reverse some of its losses.

In the absence of key data releases markets will turn their attention to the testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the House budget committee where he will give comments on the economy, jobs and the budget. Dallas Fed’s Fisher stated overnight that whilst he expects the Fed to complete QE2 he would not support another round of quantitative easing. Fisher’s comments on QE were similar to Atlanta Fed’s Lockhart who notes there is a “high bar” for more QE. Bernanke is unlikely to deviate from this tone in his speech today whilst also maintaining his view that there should be a long term commitment to fiscal retrenchment.

Against the background of improving risk appetite the USD is likely to stay under mild pressure although it is difficult to see a break of recent ranges for most currency pairs. EUR/USD ought to find strong support around its 100-day moving average 1.3535 whilst USD/JPY will be supported around 81.10. Equity sentiment is being supported by US data which remains encouraging. On cue the NFIB Small Business Optimism index duly rose in January to 94.1 as sentiment in this sector continued its improving trend.

Taken together with firmer equities, encouraging data is taking its toll on US bond markets, resulting in a back up in yields. Bond market sentiment wasn’t helped by a relatively poor 3-year auction. For example, US 2-year bond yields have backed up by over 30bps since 28 January. Bad news for bond is good news for the USD however, as higher relative US bond yields will likely help prevent a deeper USD sell-off, with EUR/USD in particular most reactive to relative eurozone / US bond yield differentials.

Econometer.org has been nominated in FXstreet.com’s Forex Best Awards 2011 in the “Best Fundamental Analysis” category. The survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fx_awards_2011

Asian Currency Differentiation

Asian currencies have started the year in mixed form, but it would be wrong to generalize the performance of Asian currencies as weak. There have been marginal gains recorded year to date vs. USD in the KRW, TWD, MYR and SGD, reflecting strong capital equity inflows. This contrasts with losses in the IDR, INR, PHP and THB versus USD. Compared to the beginning of 2010 equity capital flows have been far weaker overall, with India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, recording outflows, matching the performance of their currencies.

Clearly investors are discriminating more at the turn of 2011. For example Taiwan has recorded solid equity inflows over recent weeks (over $2 billion year-to-date), matching the strength of inflows registered at the beginning of 2010. It appears that Taiwan stocks have started the year as the Asian favorite, helped by growing expectations of further door opening to mainland investment and tourism. Korean equities have also registered inflows helping to support the KRW, which looks to be good buy over the short term above 1120.

This contrast with outflows registered in other Asian equity markets. A major concern responsible for some of the weakness in capital flows to Asia is the threat of inflation. For example, the selling of stocks in India appears to be closely related to inflation concerns and the hawkish rhetoric of the Reserve Bank of India, which is continuing its tightening path this year. Similarly, the PHP may be vulnerable over the short term following a failed T-bill auction on Monday. Inflation worries have clearly led to a push for higher yields but the bids were labeled as “unreasonable” by the government.

Over coming weeks, further EUR strength will likely give Asian currencies more support as the USD succumbs to further pressure. Continued strengthening in the CNY will also support other Asian currencies given that the CNY fixing has reached its highest level since the July 2005 revaluation.

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