Euro extends gains, yen pressured

The EUR found another spurt of life following the release of the stronger than expected February German IFO business confidence survey yesterday. The data helped make up for the disappointment related to the manufacturing and service sector surveys. However, while it may have alleviated concerns about weakening growth in Germany it only serves to highlight the disparities in growth across the Eurozone.

I continue to believe the EUR may struggle to sustain gains. In the near term, after breaking above 1.3320 resistance, EUR/USD will face further resistance around 1.3460. Nonetheless, my 2012 year end forecast of EUR/USD 1.26 shows that despite growing growth pressures in the Eurozone economy the EUR will still find underlying support from a healthy external balance and continued EUR buying from Asian official investors.

Over the near term upcoming votes in various countries on the second Greek bailout deal will provoke some nervousness while Greek reform implementation risks will also act to dampen EUR sentiment.

JPY has faced significant degree of pressure since the beginning of February. As noted previously one of the biggest sources of upward pressure on USD/JPY has been the widening in US – Japan 2-year bond yield differentials. US bonds currently yield around 19 basis points above Japan, the highest gap since August 2011. The widening yield gap already appears to be prompting foreign outflows from Japanese bonds, with outflows registered in six of the seven past weeks. These outflows have helped contribute to the weakness in the JPY.

The fact that the BoJ will step up its purchases of Japanese government bonds (JGBs) will also add to the downward pressure on the JPY as it will mean a further widening in US – Japanese yield differentials. Over the short term USD/JPY may face some resistance above the 80 level and I suspect that it will lose some momentum but maintain my view that it will reach 85.0 by the end of the year.

FX outlook this week

Direction in FX markets will largely hinge on developments at the beginning of the week in Europe but a US holiday (Presidents’ Day) will mean a subdued start. US data has continued to beat expectations as revealed by the recent gains in core retail sales, manufacturing surveys, jobless claims and industrial production. US recovery is taking shape and the USD is finally showing some signs of perking up on the news.

Rising US bond yields have provided the USD with some support although the impact has been muted by higher bond yields elsewhere. Nonetheless, despite ongoing speculation of more Fed quantitative easing the USD looks set to be on a slightly firmer footing over coming days. In a relatively light week of data releases housing data will be the major focus of attention.

Assuming approval for a second Greek bailout goes ahead (after much procrastination) the week will at least begin on a positive note for the EUR. Whether the EUR will extend gains will partly be determined by the release of flash February purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) and the German IFO business confidence survey. Our forecasts of weak service sector readings but firm manufacturing indices will be a mixed blessing for the EUR but overall data will remain consistent with mild recession.

Failure of EUR/USD to sustain a move below the psychologically important 1.30 level suggests a bit more resilience over coming days. Nonetheless, speculation of a Greek euro exit will not fade quickly and markets will likely gyrate between ‘risk on’ and ‘risk off’ depending on the latest comments from Greek or European officials. All in all, the EUR will continue to struggle to move higher.

For a change one of the bigger movers in currency markets over recent days has been the JPY. Its decline following more aggressive monetary policy action by the Bank of Japan has extended further. The move by the BoJ helped to suppress Japanese government bond yields (JGBs) allowing USD/JPY to move higher in line with relatively higher US yields. This week’s release of January trade data will support the case for more JPY weakness given the deteriorating trend.

The data will also strengthen the resolve of the Japanese authorities to intervene in FX markets should the JPY strengthen anew. Immediate focus will be whether USD/JPY can break through the psychologically important 80 level where JPY weakness will be met by plenty of exporters offloading USDs. I suspect the upside momentum in USD/JPY will fade over coming days unless US bond yields continue their ascent.

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.

FX Winners and Losers

There has been a sense of mean reversion in FX markets so far this year as some of last year’s winners have become losers. Namely NZD, CHF, JPY and AUD have all lost ground whilst EUR and GBP have gained ground. The odd one out is the SEK which has strengthened over 2010 and in 2011 versus USD. I expect this pattern to change and the likely winners over the next 3- months are NZD, AUD and CAD, with CHF and JPY the likely losers.

EUR held up reasonably well in the wake of slightly disappointing growth data, with eurozone GDP rising less than expected in Q4, and a smaller than expected gain in the February German ZEW investor confidence survey (economic sentiment component). My sense is that the net long EUR speculative position has already been pared back somewhat over recent days reducing the potential selling pressure on the currency in the near term.

Given that EUR/USD is one of the only major currency pairs being influenced by interest rate differentials, its direction will hinge more on policy expectations but in the near the announcement by the German Finance Minister this morning of a restructuring plan for WestLB may give the currency some support.

Perhaps one explanation for the stability of EUR/USD around the 1.3500 level is that US data was also disappointing yesterday. January retail sales rose less than forecast whilst revisions to back months suggest less momentum in Q4 consumer spending than previously envisaged. As with the eurozone data weather likely played a role in contributing to the outcome.

The net impact on currencies is that they are largely stuck within tight ranges. Further direction will come from the release of the Fed FOMC minutes for the January 26th meeting. The minutes may undermine the USD if a likely dovish slant continues to be expressed but given that the FOMC decision at that meeting to hold policy setting unchanged had no dissenters this should not come as a surprise.

Whilst the battle between the USD and EUR ended in a stalemate GBP outperformed in the wake of the increase in UK January CPI inflation and in particular the letter from the BoE governor to the Chancellor keeping open the door to a rate hike. The Quarterly Inflation Report (QIR) today will be particularly important to determine whether the bounce in GBP is justified.

I remain hesitant to build on long GBP positions given the net long speculative overhang in the currency. The risks following yesterday’s jump in GBP are asymmetric, with a hawkish QIR likely to have less impact on the currency than the negative impact from a more dovish than expected report.

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FX position squaring

It is becoming apparent that as the end of the year approaches market players are squaring FX positions rather than putting new risk on. The USD has failed to show any sign of sustaining a recovery over recent weeks but may be benefiting from short covering into year end, with the USD index pivoting around the 75.00 level. Supportive comments from US officials and international calls for the US to act to prevent the currency from being debased may also be helping on the margin.

Nonetheless, the USD’s outlook is still mired by a combination of both cyclical and structural concerns and it will fail to recover on a sustainable basis until it loses the mantle of preferred funding currency. This is unlikely to happen soon given the repeated commitment by the Fed to keep interest rates low for long as repeated this week by Fed Chairman Bernanke.

USD/JPY continues to gyrate around the 89-90 level and is showing little inclination to move either side though a run of positive economic surprises and the move in interest rate differentials (versus US) suggest that the JPY will trade on the firmer side of 90 over the short term; USD/JPY has been the most highly correlated currency pair with interest rate differentials over the past month. JPY speculative positioning is not particularly onerous at present, suggesting some room for an increase in JPY positioning.

The EUR continues to struggle to make any headway and is likely not being helped by European policy makers’ attempts to talk the USD higher. ECB President Trichet repeated his comments that a strong USD is in the world’s best interest though by now such comments are nothing new. It will need a clear break above 1.5061 in EUR/USD to renew the uptrend in the currency. For now, a reported 1.48-1.51 option expiring on Friday suggests range trading, with EUR/USD looking heavy on the top side.

GBP is set to remain firm despite the slightly dovish November MPC minutes. GBP looks resilient against the EUR against which it has benefited from a favourable move in interest rate differentials as a well as an adjustment in positioning where the market has decreased its GBP short positions and also decreased EUR long positions. EUR/GBP has been leading the way, and like USD/JPY this currency pair has become increasingly correlated with interest rate differentials, which has played positively for GBP. This has helped it to pivot around the 200 day moving average around 0.8871, a level that will prove important to determine further downside potential in EUR/GBP.

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