US Dollar Finding Support

The US dollar is finding growing relief from the fact that the Fed is putting up a high hurdle before more quantitative easing (QE3) is even considered. As highlighted by Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke last week he is not considering QE3 despite a spate of weak US data. Of course until US bond yields move higher the USD will fail to make much of a recovery and in turn this will need some improvement in US economic data.


The May retail sales release is unlikely to provide this with headline sales likely to undergo an autos related drop while core CPI released on Wednesday is set to remain benign in May. There will be better news on the US manufacturing front, with surveys and hard data likely to bounce back.

There is still plenty of scope for USD short covering as reflected in the fact that IMM USD positions fell further as of the 7th June, with the market still heavily short USDs. The USD index has likely found a short term bottom, with a break above the 50-day moving average level around 74.6874 in focus.

EUR has lost momentum , with the European Central Bank’s (ECB) confirmation of a July policy rate hike prompting a major sell off in the currency, even with interest rate markets barely flinching. The EUR is susceptible to developments regarding Greece and the news on this front is not good. Divisions between policy makers including the ECB about the extent of private sector involvement in a second bailout package threaten to prolong the pain.

Similarly divisions within the Greek parliament about further austerity measures needed to secure a second bail could also derail the process. Further negotiations this week will be closely scrutinised, likely taking more importance than data releases, with only the final reading of May inflation and industrial production of note this week.

As revealed by the CFTC IMM data, EUR long positions jumped early last week leaving plenty of scope for unwinding, something that is likely to take place this week. Nonetheless, support around the 30 May low of EUR/USD 1.4256 is likely to prove difficult to break on the downside this week.

GBP took a hit in the wake of yet more weak activity data in the form of May industrial and manufacturing production data. The economic news will be no better this week, with retail sales set to drop in May and CPI inflation set to rise further in April. The data will only add further to the confusion about UK monetary policy as the dichotomy between weak data and persistently high inflation continues.

Admittedly the weak data releases can at least partially be explained away by the Royal wedding and Easter holidays but this will provide little solace to GBP bulls. GBP will likely struggle against a firmer USD this week although its worth noting that GBP speculative position has been negative for 3-straight weeks, suggesting that at least there is less room for GBP position unwinding. GBP/USD is likely to hold above support around 1.6055 this week.

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.

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Temporary Euro Relief

Eurozone peripheral country travails continue to garner most market attention. There was at least a semblance of improvement on this front as peripheral bond spreads with German bunds narrowed on Tuesday but this was largely due to European Central Bank (ECB) bond buying than any improvement in sentiment. The fact that German bund yields also rose helped to narrow bund-peripheral spreads further.

A clearer test of sentiment will be today’s debt sales by Portugal followed by actions by Spain and Italy tomorrow. ECB buying of Portuguese bonds has given some relief to other debt, with Spanish and Italian debt spreads narrowing too. Even Greece managed to sell short term debt (EUR 1.95 bn of 26 week T-bills) but at a higher cost than the previous sale.

Perhaps a stronger boost to sentiment will come from the news that European Union (EU) governments are discussing an increase in the EUR 440 billion bailout fund in recognition of the fact that the fund may prove too small to cope if the crisis spreads to Spain. However, don’t expect a decision anytime soon, with next week’s meeting of EU finance ministers unlikely to agree to such a move. Support (or lack) of from Germany may prove to be a sticking point against the background of domestic political pressure.

Other options being considered include the possibility of the EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility) purchasing bonds in the secondary market and lowering interest rates on EFSF bailout loans. News that Japan will buy 20% of EFSF bonds this month as well as recent supportive comments from China suggest that an increase in the size of the EFSF may be easily funded by such investors. The EUR will gain some support against the background of such speculation but its upside may be restrained around its 200-day moving average at EUR/USD 1.3071.

In the US the economic news was not so positive for a change as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) small business optimism survey came in weaker than expected in December, an outcome that will come as a blow given that it suggests some stuttering in the recovery process as well as hiring.

There is only secondary data scheduled today, with most attention on the Fed’s Beige Book later tonight. The survey of Federal Reserve districts will likely reveal a broad based but moderate improvement in economic conditions with the exception of housing activity. A speech by the Fed’s Fisher on Monetary policy will also be in focus. Like the Fed’s Plosser overnight he may highlight some caution about the impact of Fed quantitative easing (QE).

The AUD is increasingly feeling the impact of the flooding in Queensland Australia as the extent of economic damage is revealed. Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) board member McKibbin estimated that it could knock off at least 1% from economic growth. This may prove too negative and although the flooding will result in a significantly negative impact on growth in Q1 rebuilding and reconstruction will mean that overall growth for 2011 will not be as significantly impacted. Nonetheless, a paring back in RBA policy tightening expectations will see the AUD come under further pressure, with a move down to around AUD/USD 0.9634 on the cards over the short-term.

Euro support unwinding

The USD is set to end the year in firm form aided by rising US bond yields. Yesterday’s data supported this trend. The Empire manufacturing survey beat expectations rebounding nearly 22 points in December and industrial production rose 0.4% in November although there was a downward revision to the previous month. This was against the background of soft inflation, with headline and core CPI rising 0.1%, indicating that the Fed will remain committed to its $600 billion program of asset purchases.

EUR/USD dropped below support around 1.3280, weighed down by various pieces of negative news. Moodys downgrade of Spain’s credit ratings outlook dented sentiment but the bigger sell off in EUR followed the move in US bond yields. The prospect of EUR recovery over the short term looks limited. The issue of finding agreement on a permanent debt resolution fund continues to fuel uncertainty and will likely come to a head at the EU summit starting today.

Added to this Ireland’s main opposition party which will likely play a part in forming a new government early next year wants some of the debt burden shared with senior bank debt holders. The good news in Europe was few and far between but at least Ireland’s parliament backed the EU/IMF bailout for the country. Of course the backing could be derailed following elections in January. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the move in EUR is that it’s not weaker. The next support level for EUR/USD is around 1.3160.

The divergence between the US and Europe on policy is stark, with loose fiscal and monetary policy in the US providing a significant prop to the US economy, whilst the much tighter fiscal stance and less loose monetary policy threatens to result in more pressure on eurozone growth especially against the background of an overvalued EUR. This divergence will manifest itself next year in the form of US growth outperformance and stronger USD vs. EUR.

The resilience of the UK consumer continues to surprise, with the CBI distributive trades survey coming in strong and rising further to +56 in December. The only problem with the survey data is that is has not tracked official data. November retail sales data today will give further clues to the strength of spending heading into Christmas. More worryingly from the Bank of England’s perspective is the fact that inflation continues to rise despite assurances that the increase in inflation is temporary. At the least the likelihood of more quantitative easing QE from the BoE has evaporated though it is still a long way off before interest rates are hiked. In the meantime GBP continues to underperform both EUR and USD though GBP/USD will find strong support around 1.5512.

Upward pressure on US yields and the USD us unlikely be derailed US data releases today. Housing starts are set to bounce back in November, with a 6% gain expected, whilst the trend in jobless claims will likely continue to move lower. The Philly Fed manufacturing survey is set to lose a little momentum reversing some of November’s sharp gain but will still remain at a healthy level.

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.

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