Dollar firmer, Euro vulnerable, Yen wary

multitude of market moving events last week led to severe gyrations in risk appetite but with no clear direction for currencies. Indeed, currency markets were whipsawed as the news flow shifted back and forth. Major events such as the European Central Bank (ECB) and US Federal Reserve meetings, and US jobs data provided plenty of volatility points for markets. This week’s US data slate is less littered with first tier data, with trade data and Michigan confidence, the highlights of the week. Against this background the USD will take direction from events in the eurozone and in our view will likely trade with a firmer bias given that eurozone tensions will not ease quickly.

The EUR was relatively resilient despite a referendum (later cancelled) that could have spelled the beginning of the end of Greece’s membership in the eurozone. Nonetheless, the currency still dropped over the week. This week will be no different as markets sift through various pieces of news regarding Greece and the EU rescue plan. Although the Greek Prime Minister survived a confidence vote the EUR will remain vulnerable to a lack of detail about the EU rescue plan including but not limited to how the mechanism for leveraging the EFSF bailout fund. The longer the delay in providing such details the bigger the risk to the EUR. Data releases will be unhelpful for the EUR, with hard data such as German industrial production confirming a slowdown in activity.

Japan’s FX intervention at the beginning of last week has all but been forgotten among the plethora of other market moving news. Expectations that it would be followed up by more intervention proved incorrect as the Japanese authorities refrained from more action. Perhaps the onset of the G20 meeting stayed their hand but markets will be wary of more intervention this week. However, as the strengthening current account data in Japan will likely reveal this week, Japan’s strong external position continues to feed the underlying upward pressure on the JPY for the time being.

Interestingly FX markets appear to be reacting to growth orientated central bank policy rather than yield as reflected in the fact that EUR and GBP both strengthened despite additional quantitative easing from Bank of England at its last meeting and a rate cut from the ECB last week. This week however, inaction from the BoE will provide little direction to GBP while a likely drop in industrial production will raise fears that the economy continues to be in need of more remedial action from the central bank. GBP continues to be favoured but after having made up a lot of ground versus EUR it could lose some steam this week.

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Ecofin, ECB, US jobs report in focus

The USD index remains close to its recent highs, maintaining a positive tone amid elevated risk aversion. Data releases have tended to take a back seat to events over recent weeks, but this week the all important US September jobs report may provide the bigger focus for US markets. The consensus expectation is for a 50k increase in payrolls and the unemployment rate remaining at 9.1% an outcome that would do nothing to assuage US growth worries. As usual markets will gauge clues to the jobs data from the ADP jobs data and employment components of the ISM data but an outcome in line with consensus expectations will likely keep risk aversion elevated and the USD supported unless the data is so bad that it results in an increase in expectations for Fed QE3.

There will be plenty of attention on the Ecofin meeting of European finance ministers today especially given that much of the reason for the stability in markets recently is the hope of concrete measures to resolve the crisis in the region. In this respect the scope for disappointment is high, suggesting that the EUR is vulnerable to a further drop if no progress is made at today’s meeting. While the extent of short market positioning has left open some scope for EUR short covering the absence of any good news will mean the impetus for short covering will diminish.

While attention in Europe will predominately remain on finding a resolution to the debt crisis and the saga of Greece’s next loan tranche, the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting will also be in focus this week especially given expectations that the ECB will cut interest rates. While hopes of a 50 basis points rate cut may have taken a knock from the firmer than expected reading for September flash CPI released at the end of last week the EUR could actually react positively to an easing in policy given that it may at least help to allay some of the growing growth concerns about the eurozone economy. However, any EUR will be limited unless officials in the eurozone get their act together and deliver on expectations of some form of resolution to the crisis in the region.

Strong words from Japan’s Finance Minister Azumi failed to have any lasting impact on USD/JPY. Japan will bolster funds to intervene in currency markets by JPY 15 trillion and extend the monitoring of FX positions until the end of December. Japan did not intervene during September but spent around JPY 4.5 trillion in FX intervention in August to little effect. For markets to be convinced about Japan’s conviction to weaken the JPY it will require putting intervention funds to active use, something that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming at present. A factor that may give some potential upside momentum for USD/JPY is the slight widening of US versus Japan bond yield differentials over recent days, which could finally result in a sustained move above 77.00 if it continues into this week.

Asian currencies at multi-year highs

Asian currencies are stronger in the wake of a sharp improvement in risk appetite following the approval of Greece’s austerity measures. The rally in Asian FX is revealed in the ADXY (an index of Asian currencies) index which is approaching a test of its 2nd May high around 119.26 around its highest level since August 1997. Technical indicators have turned more bullish, with the ADXY breaking above its key moving average levels (20, 50 & 100 day) and the 14-day relative strength index also turning higher.

The Asian FX rally has been led by the KRW, the Asian currency that has had the highest correlation with risk over the past few weeks. Given that risk aversion has dropped sharply since mid June it is no surprise that this currency has strengthened the most. USD/KRW is trading around its lowest level since August 2008. Strong equity capital outflows had kept the KRW on the back foot over much of June but there has been a bounce back in flows recently. However, USD/KRW is likely to find it tough to break below 1060 over the short-term, especially given likely resistance from the local authorities.

The THB, the worst performing Asian currency in June, has rapidly reversed some of its losses. The THB looks set to consolidate its gains following a decisive election result which saw the opposition Puea Thai Party gain control of parliament. The biggest relief for markets was the fact that the outcome was relatively clear cut, suggesting a potentially a smooth handover of power. Nonetheless, the currency has already jumped and after having dropped to around 30.40 from a high of around 31.01 USD/THB is likely to trade off gyrations in risk appetite.

The fact that the USD has lost some ground in the wake of firmer risk appetite and better news in Greece has also allowed Asian currencies to strengthen although it’s worth noting that amongst Asian currencies only the MYR has maintained a significant correlation with the USD index over the past 3-months. In other words, although USD weakness has helped to facilitate Asian currency strength, the recent strengthening in Asian FX is more likely to have been due to a rebound in capital inflows to the region.

Further Asian FX gains are likely over the near term especially as China continues to fix the CNY higher versus USD but given the recent rapid gains in some currencies, there is a risk of growing official resistance and intervention to slow or stem Asian FX gains. Moreover, the end of QE2 in the US suggests that the downside risks for the USD in general are not likely to be as prevalent, with a potential recovery in the USD over H2 likely to stand in the way of strong Asian FX gains over coming months.

Markets in limbo ahead of policy rate decisions

Markets are generally range-bound ahead of tomorrow’s Japan, Eurozone and UK interest rate decisions, as reflected in the flat performance of equity markets overnight. Risk appetite remains positive though still lower than the high levels seen during most of March. China’s interest rate hike did not change the market’s perspective, with markets reacting well.

Overnight the Fed FOMC minutes reflected a range of opinions on the timing of the end of QE2 and the Fed’s exit strategy but the majority view was to end QE2 as planned at the end of June leaving markets, with little new to digest. The USD was a little undermined by a weaker than expected US March ISM non-manufacturing survey but losses are likely to be limited.

Meanwhile there was more negative peripheral news in Europe, with Moody’s cutting Portugal’s sovereign credit ratings by one notch, with Moody’s highlighting the urgent need for financial support from the EU. Portuguese debt took a hit but eurozone markets in general including the EUR continue to take such news in their stride, with EUR/USD holding above 1.4200. Firm readings for the eurozone final services purchasing managers index (PMI) in March helped to support sentiment, outweighing the negative impact of a drop in eurozone retail sales.

GBP was a key outperformer, helped by a much stronger than expected services PMI, which helped GBP/USD breach 1.63 overnight. Today’s industrial and manufacturing production data will likely reveal firm readings too, helping GBP to consolidate its gains but the currency looks rather rich around current levels, with risks skewed to the downside.

JPY was another mover, having breached 85.00 versus the USD, with USD/JPY now some 6 big figures higher from its post earthquake lows. Japanese authorities will undoubtedly see a measure of success from their joint intervention but the reality is that the shift in bond yields (2-year US / Japan yield differentials have widened by close to 30 basis points since mid March, are finally having some impact on USD/JPY as reflected in the strengthening in short-term correlations.

EUR/USD remains resilient to negative peripheral news such as the Portugal credit ratings downgrade, with further direction from tomorrow’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and accompanying statement. The risk that the ECB is not as hawkish as the market has priced in holds some downside risks to EUR.

Asian currencies are holding up well though it looks as though the ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asian currency index) may have hit a short term barrier. Range trading for EUR/USD suggests little directional influence for Asian currencies in the short-term. Nonetheless, portfolio capital inflows continue to support Asian FX with all Asian equity markets recording foreign inflows so far this month. In particular, KRW continues to outperform. Note that Korea has recorded a whopping inflow of $1.1bn in equity inflows month-to-date.

G7 Intervention Hits Japanese Yen

One could imagine that it was not difficult for Japan to garner G7 support for joint intervention in currency markets given the terrible disaster that has hit the country. Given expectations of huge repatriation flows into Japan and a possible surge in the JPY Japanese and G7 officials want to ensure currency stability and lower volatility. Moreover, as noted in the G7 statement today officials wanted to show their solidarity with Japan, with intervention just one means of showing such support.

Although Japanese Finance Minister Noda stated that officials are not targeting specific levels, the psychologically important level of 80.00 will likely stick out as a key level to defend. Note that the last intervention took place on 15 September 2010 around 83.00 and USD/JPY was trading below this level even before the earthquake struck. The amount of intervention then was around JPY 2.1 trillion and at least this amount was utilised today. The last joint G7 intervention took place in September 2000.

Unlike the one off FX intervention in September 2010, further intervention is likely over coming days and weeks by Japan and the Federal Reserve, Bank of France, Bundesbank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and other G7 nations. The timing of the move today clearly was aimed at avoiding a further dramatic drop in USD/JPY, with Thursday’s illiquid and stop loss driven drop to around 76.25 adding to the urgency for intervention. USD/JPY will find some resistance around the March high of 83.30, with a break above this level likely to help maintain the upside momentum.

The JPY has become increasingly overvalued over recent years as reflected in a variety of valuation measures. Prior to today’s intervention the JPY was over 40% overvalued against the USD according to the Purchasing Power Parity measure, a much bigger overvaluation than any other Asian and many major currencies. The trade weighted JPY exchange rate has appreciated by around 56% since June 2007. In other words there was plenty of justification for intervention even before the recent post earthquake surge in JPY

Although Japanese exporters had become comfortable with USD/JPY just above the 80 level over recent months, whilst many have significant overseas operations, the reality is that a sustained drop in USD/JPY inflicts significant pain on an economy and many Japanese exporters at a time when export momentum is slowing. Japan’s Cabinet office’s annual survey in March revealed that Japanese companies would remain profitable if USD/JPY is above 86.30. Even at current levels it implies many Japanese companies profits are suffering.

Upward pressure on the JPY will remain in place, suggesting a battle in prospect for the authorities to weaken the currency going forward. Round 1 has gone to the Japanese Ministry of Finance and G7, but there is still a long way to go, with prospects of huge repatriation flows likely to make the task of weakening the JPY a difficult one. The fact that there is joint intervention will ensure some success, however and expect more follow up by other G7 countries today to push the JPY even weaker over the short-term.

What QE2 means for currencies

The sweeping gains for the Republican party in the US mid term elections has sharply changed the political dynamic in the US, with the prospects of further fiscal stimulus looking even slimmer than before although the chances of the Bush tax cuts being extended have likely increased.

The onus is on monetary policy to do the heavy lifting and the Fed delivered on its end of the bargain, with the announcement of $600 billion of purchases of long-term securities over 8-months through June 2011.

Given the likelihood that the economic impact of the asset purchases is likely to be limited and with little help on the fiscal front the Fed has got a major job on its hands and $600 billion may end up being a minimum amount of purchases necessary for the Fed to fulfil its mandate.

The decline in the USD following the Fed decision is unlikely to mark the beginning of a more rapid pace of USD decline though further weakness over coming months remains likely. The USD remains a sell on rallies for now and an overshoot on the downside is highly probable as the Fed begins its asset purchases.

The bottom line is that the Fed’s program of asset purchases implies more USD supply and in simple economic terms more supply without an increase in demand implies a lower price. The USD will remain weak for some months to come and the Fed’s actions will prevent any USD recovery as the USD solidifies its position as the ultimate funding currency.

Nonetheless, with market positioning close to extreme levels, US bond yields unlikely to drop much further, and the USD already having sold off sharply in anticipation of QE2, (USD index has dropped by around 14% since June) those looking for a further sharp drop in the USD to be sustained are likely to be disappointed.

It is difficult however, to fight the likely further weakness in the USD even if turns out not to be a rapid decline. The path of least resistance to some likely USD weakness will be via the likes of the commodity currencies, scandies and emerging market currencies. There will be less marked appreciation in GBP, CHF and JPY against the USD.

The Fed’s actions will continue to fuel a rush of liquidity into emerging markets, particularly into Asia. This means more upward pressure on Asian currencies but will likely prompt a variety of responses including stronger FX intervention as well as measures to restrict and control such flows.

There have been various comments from central banks in the region warning about the Fed’s actions prompting further “hot money” flows into the region and even talk of a coordinated response to combat such flows.

This suggests more tensions ahead of the upcoming G20 meeting in Seoul. Assuming that at least some part of the additional USD liquidity flows into Asia, the implications of potentially greater FX intervention by Asian central banks to prevent Asian currencies from strengthening, will have a significant impact on major currencies.

Already it is apparent that central banks in Asia have been strongly using the accumulated USDs from FX intervention to diversify into EUR and other currencies including AUD and even JPY. Perversely this could end up exacerbating USD weakness against major currencies.

FX Tension

On September 22 1985 the governments of France, West Germany, Japan, US and UK signed the Plaza Accord which agreed to sharply weaken the USD. At this time it was widely agreed that the USD was overly strong and needed to fall sharply and consequently these countries engineered a significant depreciation of the USD.

It is ironic that 25 years later governments are once again intervening in various ways and that the USD is once again facing a precipitous decline as the Fed moves towards implementing further quantitative easing. This time central banks are acting unilaterally, however, and there is little agreement between countries. For instance Japan’s authorities found no help from the Fed or any other central bank in its recent actions to buy USD/JPY.

So far Japan’s FX interventions have been discreet after the initial USD/JPY buying on 15 September. The fact that Japan is less inclined to advertise its FX intervention comes as little surprise given the intensifying pressure from the US Congress on China for not allowing its currency, the CNY to strengthen. Tensions have deepened over recent weeks and the backing of a bill last week by an important Congressional committee to allow US companies to seek tariffs on Chinese imports suggests that the situation has taken a turn for the worse.

The softly softly approach to Japan’s FX intervention and US/China friction reflects the fact that unlike in 1985 we may be entering a period in which currency and in turn trade tensions are on the verge of intensifying sharply against the background of subdued global economic recovery.

The Fed’s revelation that it is moving closer to implementing further quantitative easing has shifted the debate to when QE2 occurs rather than if, with a November move moving into focus. Clearly the USD took the news negatively and will likely remain under pressure for a prolonged period as the simple fact of more USD supply weighs heavily on the currency. Markets will be able to garner more clues to the timing of QE2, with a plethora of Fed speakers on tap over coming days.

This week the US economic news will be downbeat, with September consumer and manufacturing confidence surveys likely to register declines, with consumer sentiment weighed down by the weakness in job market conditions. Personal income and spending will also be of interest and gains are expected for both. There will be plenty of attention on the core PCE deflator given that further declines could give clues to the timing of QE2.

Attention in Europe will centre on Wednesday’s recommendations for legislation on “economic governance” from the European Commission. Proposed penalties for fiscal indiscipline may include withholding of funding and/or voting restrictions but such measures would be politically contentious. Measures to enforce fiscal discipline ought to be positive for markets given the renewed tensions in peripheral bond markets in the eurozone.

The EUR was a major outperformer last week benefiting from intensifying US QE speculation and will set its sights on technical resistance (20 April high) around 1.3523 in the short-term. Notably EUR speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time this year according to the CFTC IMM data, reflecting the sharp shift in speculative appetite for the currency over recent weeks. The EUR has been surprisingly resilient to renewed sovereign debt concerns and similarly softer data will not inflict much damage to the currency this week.

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