Nervousness Creeping Back – US dollar firmer

Last week ended on a sour note as concerns over second round virus cases intensified; Apple’s decision to close some US stores in states where cases are escalating added to such concerns. This overshadowed earlier news that China would maintain its commitment to buying US agricultural goods.  Although on the whole, equity markets had a positive week there is no doubt that nervousness is creeping back into the market psyche.  Indeed it is notable that the VIX equity volatility “fear gauge” ticked back up and is still at levels higher than seen over most of May.

Economic recovery is continuing, as reflected in less negative data globally, but hopes of a “V” shape recovery continue to look unrealistic.  In this respect the battle between fundamentals and liquidity continues to rage.  Economic data has clearly turned around, but the pace of improvement is proving gradual.  For example, last week’s US jobless claims data continued to trend lower, but at a slower pace than hoped for.  A second round of virus cases in several US states including Florida, Arizona and the Carolinas also suggest that while renewed lockdowns are unlikely, a return to normality will be a very slow process, with social distancing measures likely to remain in place.  Geopolitical tensions add another layer of tension for markets.  Whether its tensions between US/China, North/South Korea, India/China or the many other hot spots globally, geopolitical risks to markets are rising.

The USD has benefitted from increased market nervousness, and from US data outperformance, with US data surprises (according to the Citi economic surprise index) at around the highest on record.  JPY has bucked the trend amid higher risk aversion as it has regained some of its safe haven status. GBP was badly beaten last week selling off from technically overbought levels, amid fresh economic concerns and a dawning reality that a Brexit trade deal with the EU may be unreachable by year end.  EUR looks as though it is increasingly joining the club on its way down. Asian currencies with the highest sensitivities to USD gyrations such as KRW are most vulnerable to further USD upside in Asia.

Data highlights this week include the May US PCE Report (Fri) which is likely to reveal a bounce in personal spending, Eurozone flash June purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Tue) which are likely to record broad increases, European Central Bank meeting minutes (Thu), which are likely to reflect a dovish stance, and several central bank decisions including Hungary (Tue), Turkey (Thu), New Zealand (Wed),  Thailand (Wed), Philippines (Thu).   The room for central banks to ease policy is reducing but Turkey, Philippines and Mexico are likely to cut policy rates this week.

 

 

JPY and Asian FX outlook

JPY is facing a double whammy of upward pressure related to both rising risk aversion and a narrowing US yield advantage over Japan. The latter influence has been significant, with 10 year US Treasury yields dropping by around 70bps since the end of last year, versus 10 year Japanese JGB yields. The net result is that the currency pair has fallen sharply over recent weeks and will remain constrained until US yields resume their ascent.

In the near term the escalation of tensions in the Ukraine will fuel increased safe haven demand for JPY potentially leading to a test of a test of technical support around USD/JPY 100.62 (11 September 13 high). However, strong demand around the 101.20-30 level suggests that it may require another leg lower for US yields to fuel a further sharp drop in USD/JPY.

Asian currencies are set to continue to show some relative resilience to events in Ukraine although a weaker bias is expected. Most currencies remain relatively insensitive to gyrations in risk appetite except KRW which registers the biggest correlation with our risk barometer.

Overall, lower US yields will help provide some support to Asian currencies and investors will continue to differentiate based on domestic factors rather than shifts in risk appetite. Additionally some relative stability in the CNY / CNH may also help to limit pressure on Asian currencies.

Australian dollar rallies, Korean won bounces back

On the currency front, the best performers so far this year have been an odd combination of JPY, NZD and AUD versus USD. JPY has benefitted from both compressed yield differentials with the US and risk aversion but its gains are likely to reverse over the coming weeks as these factors reverse.

I have been generally more constructive on AUD and NZD than the consensus and remain so. Both AUD and NZD look oversold and will gradually appreciate further, especially as both the RBA and RBNZ have now likely ended their easing cycles, with the latter set to raise policy rates by the end of this quarter. AUD/USD breached 0.90 this morning helped by a strong business confidence reading for January.

Most Asian currencies have rebounded so far this month, with some of the biggest losers over January recording gains. The KRW has been the best performer in February recording gains despite continued outflows of equity capital. Korea has recorded $1.26 billion in equity outflows so far this month, the highest among Asian countries.

In contrast bond inflows into Korea have been relatively solid over January and this continued into February, helping to provide some support to KRW despite equity outflows. Helping the KRW is the fact that is much less sensitive to US bond yields than many other Asian currencies helping it to avoid any fallout from higher US yields in February. USD/KRW is on path for a break below support around 1070.

Asian currencies under pressure

The close to 1% drop in the USD index over recent days is misleading in terms of the USD’s performance against emerging market currencies where it has registered strong gains. For example the ADXY (Asian USD index) has dropped to its lowest level since early September 2013 and looks set to decline further as Asian currencies face more pressure. The best performers in this environment are traditional safe havens, especially JPY and CHF while the EUR and Scandinavian currencies have also capitalised on the weaker USD.

The drop in the USD against many major currencies reflects the fact that positioning had reached extreme levels prior to the sharp moves at the end of last week. For instance, net long USD speculative positions (according to the CFTC IMM data) had risen to the highest level since June 2013 while in contrast EUR positioning had dropped to its lowest since July 2013. The subsequent position adjustment will have proved to be a healthy correction that will set the USD up for an eventual rebound and the EUR for a sell off.

The sharp drop in US Treasury yields will undermine the USD further in the near term, however, and the mixed slate of US data releases will offer the currency little assistance. Nonetheless, the USD is expected to stay firm against Asian currencies. Notably capital flows from Asian equity markets have increased over recent weeks, with Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand on track to register outflows for the first month of the year. Against this background it is unsurprising that both the KRW and PHP are the two worst performing Asian currencies so far this year. While I expect a reversal in both, the near term outlook is for further pressure.

Rising risk aversion

The US ADP November jobs report and October new home sales both beat expectations yesterday piling on the pressure on US Treasuries and adding further weight to support those looking for the Fed to taper at the December 17-18 FOMC meeting. Consequently non farm payrolls expectation will likely be revised higher from the current consensus of around 180k. In contrast the ISM non manufacturing index came in below consensus, with the jobs component slipping. US equities ended marginally lower while the USD held its ground. However, risk measures such as the VIX “fear gauge” moved higher. Rising risk aversion may reflect expectations of imminent tapering and some angst ahead of US budget talks.

US November payrolls data to be released tomorrow will be crucial to provide more decisive clues to the timing of Fed tapering. Attention ahead of the jobs report will turn to the European Central Bank policy decision where no action is expected although some downward revisions to staff forecasts are likely. We continue to expect a more aggressive ECB stance into 2014. The Bank of England and Norges Bank will also decide on policy rates but no change is expected in both cases. In the US an upward revision to Q3 US GDP is expected to around 3.1% QoQ annualised while jobless claims will also be in focus. Market nervousness is likely to continue today although activity is likely to be limited ahead of the US payrolls data tomorrow.

The USD should be supported due to higher US Treasury yields although USD/JPY has lost some ground in the wake of higher risk aversion. The large short JPY market position may also be limiting the JPY’s downside for now. EUR/USD is trading shy of its recent highs above 1.36 and could be vulnerable to a dovish ECB statement today as well as to growth forecast downgrades by the ECB. AUD continues to remain under pressure having traded just below 0.90 overnight in the wake of disappointing GDP data yesterday and is likely to remain vulnerable to further slippage. CAD was further undermined by a relatively dovish Bank of Canada statement following the decision overnight to leave policy rates unchanged.

Given that US Treasury yields have risen by around 33bps since the end of October it is worth looking at which currencies are most sensitive to rising yields. In Asia the most correlated currencies with 10 year US Treasury yields over the last 3 months and therefore most vulnerable currencies are the SGD, THB, and MYR. The least sensitive have been CNY, IDR and KRW. Playing long KRW / short SGD appears to be a good way of playing an environment of rising US yields, especially given that yields are set to continue to rise over the coming months.

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