Central banks fail to impress

Three central banks acted within a short time of each other to provide yet more monetary stimulus. However, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) 25 bps cut in its refi rate and deposit rate, China’s central bank, PBoC’s cut in interest rates and an additional GBP 50 billion of asset purchases by the Bank of England have failed to stimulate markets. This is a worrying development for policy makers especially as the drug of monetary stimulus has been a major factor spurring equity markets and risk assets since the global financial crisis began in 2008.

The lack of positive momentum emanating from the policy easing by central banks yesterday reflects the reality that the efficacy of further easing has now become very limited. Will a quarter percent rate cut from the ECB or yet another round of asset purchases from the BoE really make a difference at a time when core bond yields are already at extremely low levels and the demand for credit globally is very weak? Moreover, are policy makers really addressing the underlying problems in the Eurozone or elsewhere? I think the answers are obvious.

The same argument applies to the Fed if it was to embark on a third round of quantitative easing. Admittedly more Fed QE could weaken the USD and boost equities but would it really have a lasting impact? In any case I don’t think the Fed is on the verge of more QE following the recent extension of ‘Operation Twist’ which itself will do little more than have a psychological impact on markets. Today’s release of the June jobs report could give some further impetus to QE expectations if it comes in weak but I doubt this will occur.

One casualty of the cut in ECB rates was the EUR which dropped sharply, having not only given up its post EU Summit gains over recent days but extending its losses even further. This is perhaps an odd reaction considering that a rate cut was widely expected. ECB President Draghi’s warnings about the path ahead will have played negatively on the currency as well expectations of more stronger easing in the months ahead perhaps involving ECB QE.

I still stick to the view that European policy makers have at least put a short term floor under the EUR in the wake of the decisions at the EU Summit suggesting that further downside will be limited, with the 2012 low around 1.2288 likely to act as a short term floor for EUR/USD. Nonetheless, with many details of the plans announced in the Summit yet to be ironed out and implementation risks running very high a degree of market caution should be expected.


US dollar remains funding currency of choice

Rate hikes in some countries including Australia and Norway and a general improvement in economic data had led to some expectations that the Fed would shift its rhetoric on monetary policy but in the event this was not to be the case.  The key comment in the FOMC statement following the interest rate decision was that rates would be kept low for an “extended period”. The Fed added that its policy stance was contingent on “low rates of resource utilization, subdued inflation trends and stable inflation expectations.”  

The fact that the Fed maintained its relatively dovish stance contrary to some expectations ahead of the FOMC meeting resulted in interest rate markets paring back expectations for future rate hikes though I still believe that a rate hike anytime in 2010 will prove premature.  The Fed’s new conditions mean however, that the Fed will be more restricted when it does come to timing rate hikes and markets will watch closely, the unemployment rate and inflation expectations to determine this timing. 

Given that the unemployment rate is still rising and is expected to decline only slowly over coming months whilst core inflation is set to decline further, and excess slack in the economy is only likely to be reduced gradually, markets are still too aggressive in looking for increases in interest rates next year.  The Fed did not remove the reference to an “extended period” of low rates despite speculation ahead of the meeting and whilst many in the market continue to debate how long this will be, the Fed will not feel any need to rush to reverse policy. 

The USD weakened following the FOMC meeting but did not suffer a particularly hard blow.  Going forward the USD will not recover until there is clearer evidence that the Fed is ready to reverse policy and in the near term this means that the USD will remain under pressure, especially if markets push back expectations of rate hikes.  This will mean that the USD will continue to be the funding currency of choice for several months yet.  Cyclical USD recovery is still some way off but eventually the Fed’s actions will pay off and the USD will recover by around mid 2010 as the market becomes more aggressive in pricing in rate hikes in the US.

No relief for Sterling

Anybody in the UK thinking of taking a holiday overseas has had to think twice over recent months given the precipitous drop in the pound (GBP) that took place since the beginning of August 2008. At the lowest point around six months after the British pound began its decline it had lost around a third of its value against the US dollar. Against the euro, sterling has fared even more poorly over a longer period, with GBP losing around 45% of its value from the beginning of 2007.

Since then GBP has recovered but has given back some of its gains over recent weeks against the dollar but has continued to weaken against the EUR. The worsening in GBP sentiment has been particularly well reflected in CFTC data on speculative positioning which revealed a drop to an all time low in GBP speculative contracts in contrast to EUR speculative contracts reaching close to the year high.

GBP faces headwinds from expectations that the Bank of England will extend its quantitative easing especially in the wake of recent data whilst news that the Center for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) predicted that the Bank of England (BoE) will keep its base rate unchanged until at least the end of 2011 came as another blow.

Although currencies are not particularly sensitive to interest rate movements at present it is unlikely to be long before the historically strong FX/interest rate relationship re-exerts itself and if UK policy is likely to remain accommodative for a prolonged period this could be detrimental to GBP’s recovery prospects. It seems unlikely that the BoE will wait as long as the CEBR predict before raising interest rates although a rate hike anytime in 2010 also looks unlikely.

There is at least some hope that aggressive UK monetary policy will deliver a relatively quicker economic recovery than in the eurozone where policy has arguably been much less aggressive and this relatively more positive cyclical picture will eventually result in some strengthening in GBP.

Nonetheless, the interim outlook continues to look bleak and sentiment is likely to continue to deteriorate over the short term. EUR/GBP now looks on path to retest its high reached at the end of 2008 at just over 0.98 (or around 1.02 for those that prefer to look at GBP/EUR) whilst GBP/USD appears to be heading for a move back below 1.55 and back to around 1.50.

Perhaps one of the only positive things that GBP has going for it at present is that looks very undervalued and when recovery does happen it could bounce back quite quickly and aggressively as markets cover their short positions. In the meantime, the good news of low interest rates will at least benefit borrowers and mortgage holders holding GBP denominated loans but not anyone in the UK wanting to take a holiday overseas.

What to watch this week

Over recent days trading has been characterised by dollar weakness, stronger equities, rising commodity prices and most recently an increase in US bond yields, the latter driven by some slightly hawkish Fed comments. Whether the tone of stronger attraction to risk trades continues will largely depend on US Q3 earnings however, with many earnings reports scheduled this week.

Given the plethora of Fed officials on the wires over recent days and the mixed comments from these officials there may more attention on US CPI on Thursday than usual but the data is unlikely to fuel any concern about inflation risks. Instead there will be more interest on the Fed FOMC minutes on Wednesday which will once again be scrutinised for the timing of an exit strategy.

Over the week there is plenty for markets to digest aside from earnings reports. US consumer and manufacturing reports will garner most attention. The key release is US September retail sales (Wed) where some payback for the “cash for clunkers” related surge in sales over the last month is likely to result in a drop in headline retail sales, though underlying sales will likely post a modest rise.

Fed speeches will also be monitored and speakers include Kohn, Dudley, Tarullo and Bullard this week. Recent comments have hinted that some Fed members are becoming increasingly concerned about the timing of policy reversal and further signs of this in this week’s speeches may give the dollar some comfort but this will prove limited given that the Fed is still a long way off from reversing policy.

Even if the market believes the Fed is starting to contemplate the timing of reversing its current policy setting it is unclear that the dollar will benefit much in the current environment. Sentiment remains bearish; speculative dollar sentiment deteriorated sharply over the past week according to the CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data, to levels close to the lowest for the year.

Moreover, the correlation between interest rate differentials and currencies is still insignificant in most cases suggesting that even a jump in yields such as the move prompted by last week’s comments by Fed Chairman Bernanke should not automatically be expected to boost the dollar. Once markets become more aggressive in pricing in higher US interest rates this may change but there is little sign of this yet

In contrast the euro continues to benefit from recycling of central bank reserves and recorded a jump in speculative appetite close to its highest level this year according to the IMM data. Reserve flows from central banks may contribute to EUR/USD taking aim at its year high around 1.4844 (last tested on 24 September 09) over coming days.

Is the Fed trying to support the dollar?

Did Fed Chairman Bernanke really provide any real support to the dollar when he said at the Board of Governors conference on Thursday that the Fed will be prepared to tighten monetary policy when the outlook for the economy “has improved sufficiently”. Various newswires report that these comments have given the dollar some relief but the reality is that Bernanke only stated the obvious. Of course the Fed has to raise interest rates at some point and most likely this will be when the economic recovery looks sustainable. There is indication when this point in time will be, however.

In fact there was unsurprisingly no sign from Bernanke that the Fed was preparing to raise rates any time soon. As was noted in the September 23 Fed FOMC statement Bernanke reiterated that the Fed “believe that accommodative policies will likely be warranted for an extended period”. An extended period could mean at the least some months but even years and this is no exaggeration.

In 2001 the Fed did not begin to hike rates until around 2 ½ years after the end of the recession whilst in 1990-91 rates did not go up until close to 3 years after recession ended. Arguably this recession was worse in terms of depth and breadth suggesting that it will take a long time before the Fed even contemplates reversing policy. In any case the first step is to reduce the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Admittedly there has been some suggestions from other Fed members that when interest rates are raised it may be done “with greater force” as stated by Fed Governor Warsh recently but others such as NY Fed President Dudley have said that the pace of recovery “is not likely to be robust”, suggesting a more cautious tone and also highlighting that there is some debate within the Fed about the timing of exit strategies and raising interest rates.

There is no doubt that some Fed members are becoming more nervous about holding policy at such an accommodative level but it could still be several months before policy is reversed given the massive excess capacity in the product and labour markets and benign outlook for inflation. Judging by past history markets have little to be nervous about in terms of an early rate hike.

For the dollar this is bad news and as noted in my previous post the dollar will suffer from a growing yield disadvantage as other countries raise interest rates ahead of the Fed. The dollar may have benefited from some short covering at the end of the week and this could have been provoked by Bernanke’s comments but if so, the dollar’s gains are likely to be short-lived as investors take the opportunity of better levels to take short positions in the currency.

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