US dollar pull back to prove short lived

Having spent the tail end of last week in Singapore and Phnom Penh presenting the Global outlook for 2014 to clients as part of our Asian roadshow it struck me that there is a strong consensus view about a number of market movements this year. In particular, most expect the USD to strengthen over 2014. Indeed just as it looked as though the USD was going to surge into the new year, along comes the US jobs report to spoil the party. Clearly, it’s not going to be a one way bet in 2014.

The surprisingly weak US December payrolls data in which only 74k jobs were added compared to consensus expectations of close to 200k helped to support expectations that Fed tapering would take place only gradually, lending a helping hand to risk assets at the turn of this week.

I don’t believe the jobs data materially changes the picture for the Fed. Adverse weather may have played a role in the weakness in jobs while complicating matters was the drop in the unemployment rate to 6.7% largely due to around 350,000 people leaving the labour force. The data resulted in a drop in US bond yields and a weaker USD although equity market reaction was more mixed. Meanwhile gold and other commodity prices rose.

While risk assets may find some support in the wake of the jobs report this week much of the US data slate will if anything highlight that economic growth is strengthening, suggesting a reversal of some of the price action in US Treasuries, USD and gold. Data releases include a likely healthy increase in core US retail sales in December together with gains in manufacturing confidence surveys (Empire and Philly Fed) and industrial output as well as a further increase in consumer confidence (Michigan sentiment survey).

Additionally several Fed speakers are on tap over coming days, which may give more colour on Fed thinking in the wake of the jobs report. However, it is doubtful that they will indicate that the Fed will not taper as expected in January.

Clearly markets were caught overly long USDs last week as reflected in CFTC IMM speculative positioning data as of 7th January which showed that net USD long positions had reached their highest since September 2013. The pull back in the USD is set to be short lived, however, especially if US data over coming days reveals further improvement as expected.

USD/JPY in particular bore the brunt of the pull back in US yields, as long positions were unwound. A Japanese holiday today may limit activity but much will depend on the propensity for US yields to bounce back, with 10 year US Treasury yields currently around 2.85% compared to around 2.97% on Friday.

Asian currencies have been the most sensitive to US Treasury yields gyrations over the past three months. In order of sensitivity to US 10 year Treasury yields the highest is the JPY, followed by MYR, THB, PHP and SGD. These currencies would be expected to benefit the most in the wake of the drop in yields at the end of last week although as noted any pull back in US yields is likely to prove temporary. While the THB may suffer from political concerns in the near term the other currencies are likely to see some short term gains.

Beware of yield sensitive currencies

Markets are becoming increasingly accustomed to the idea of an imminent Fed tapering as reflected in ongoing gains in risk assets. Indeed, these gains have taken place even in the face of comments by Fed officials overnight including Bullard and Fisher which on balance supported the view of beginning tapering sooner rather than later.

The fact that US bond yields continue to decline despite the release of a slate of firmer US and global data also suggests that a lot in terms of tapering expectations are priced in. Nonetheless, year end position adjustment may also account for some of the moves, particularly with the USD coming under near term pressure against most currencies except JPY as US yields slip.

I remain constructive on the USD given that US growth will outperform, with an attendant rise in US yields. Not only am I constructive on the USD against many major currencies, I expect the USD to strengthen versus many emerging market currencies too.

Those currencies most sensitive to US yields (10 year US Treasuries) will be among the biggest underperformers in 2014. This list includes the INR, TRY, MYR, and BRL. The rationale for weakness in these currencies is that Fed tapering and higher US yields will further increase capital outflows or at least reduce inflows to many countries.

Conversely some of the currencies least effected by tapering / higher US yields are in the top half of the likely outperformers next year including KRW and TWD.

Awaiting the Fed

Another positive day for US equities overnight reflected the ongoing gradual but steady improvement in risk sentiment. The USD also managed to shake off some of its malaise, rising against most major currencies although US Treasuries continued to flat line. Data in the US did little to change expectations for the Fed FOMC policy decision tonight; headline retail sales dropped (-0.1%) in September but core orders looked healthier (0.4%), while US consumer confidence slipped by more than expected in October (71.2) and US house prices rose (0.93%) in August.

Direction will be limited ahead of the Fed outcome where markets hope to garner some clues on the timing of the beginning of tapering. However, given that the consensus has clearly shifted to a March 2014 beginning of tapering it is difficult to see how the Fed could build on already dovish market expectations. Ahead of the Fed decision we will be able to assess further evidence on the state of the private sector jobs market, with October ADP jobs scheduled for release.

Given the risk / reward around today’s Fed meeting we remain constructive on the USD, with further albeit gradual recovery ahead. Indeed, it is encouraging that the EUR failed to hold onto gains even after ECB member Nowotny effectively gave the green light for further EUR strength when he noted that policy makers `have to live with` a strong EUR. EUR will continue to look a sell on rallies above 1.3800.

Nototny’s sanguine tone is not shared elsewhere as reflected in attempts by RBA Governor Stevens to talk down the AUD this week or by NZ’s central bank, noting that the strength of the NZD could give scope to delay interest rate hikes. GBP also seems to be failing to shake off the after effects of relative dovish comments by Bank of England MPC members over recent days. The overall winner appears to the USD especially as a lot of dovishness is already priced into the currency.

The USD is also set to take a firmer tone against Asian currencies over the short term. Asian currencies most sensitive to USD strength are SGD, MYR and PHP and these currencies will be most exposed in the short term to further downside risks. IDR also looks vulnerable given the continued outflows of equity portfolio capital from Indonesia over recent weeks (month to date outflows USD 175 million). KRW looks more stable although disappointing September industrial production data released this morning will put a firm cap on the currency.

Asian currencies benefit from weaker US jobs data

Weaker than forecast US September jobs data, delayed in the wake of the government shutdown, spurred risk appetite overnight pushing equities higher helped further by encouraging US Q3 earnings. The employment report revealed that jobs growth slowed to 148,000 while the unemployment rate declined slightly to 7.2%.

In contrast to the reaction in risk assets, 10 year US Treasury yields dropped to around 2.5% and the USD took another hit as the data was perceived to provide more concrete evidence that the Fed will only begin to slow its asset purchases next year, with many now looking for tapering to only begin in March 2014.

Unfortunately for the USD this effectively means its attraction as a funding currency may continue for longer than previously expected. Consequently gold prices rallied benefiting from both the drop in yields and weaker USD.

Data today (Bank of England MPC minutes, Bank of Canada rate decision, terms of the European Central Bank’s Asset Quality Review) will not be as important for markets but it is clear that fundamentals are taking a bigger grip on market direction after a period of being relegated to the sidelines in the wake of US political mayhem.

Asian currencies have benefitted from the drop in the USD overnight and the potential further delay in tapering to Mach next year. The main gainers of recent weeks are those that stand most to gain from delayed tapering (ie those with external funding requirements and that are most sensitive to US Treasury yields). In this respect the IDR, MYR and INR have been the best performing Asian currencies so far this month and look best placed to benefit in the short term from the consequences of the weaker US jobs report.

Against the backdrop of delayed tapering equity capital inflows to Asia have continued their steep recovery since the beginning of September, providing another layer of support to Asian FX. India, Korea and Taiwan have been major winners in this respect, with a surge in equity flows registered to these countries. However, the INR’s ability to benefit is partly negated by continued outflows from India’s bond markets.

Peering over the cliff

As the US edges closer to falling off the fiscal cliff budget discussions between US President Obama and Congressional leaders commencing today will garner most attention. Conciliatory signs from both sides suggest some attempt at compromise but tough starting points mean that it will not be easy to match rhetoric with reality.

Markets are clearly in nervous mood, with US stocks closing lower as risk aversion edged higher. Disappointing earnings from Wal-Mart Stores taken together with a weaker than anticipated Philly Fed survey in November and weekly jobless claims added another layer of negativity to the market. Despite the US-centric fiscal cliff risks the USD remains firm although notably its pace of appreciation has slowed, with the currency likely to make little headway in the near term.

Although unsurprising, data in Europe confirmed that the region fell back into recession, an outcome that will do little to ease tensions. Hopes of a final agreement on Greece’s loan tranche at next week’s Eurogroup meeting may however, limit any damage to Eurozone markets. The EUR has shown signs of bottoming out and may take further advantage of the respite from a more restrained USD. There is little of interest on the data front today, with Eurozone current account data, US industrial production and TICS flows the main highlights.

On the political front the dissolution of parliament in Japan is the highlight, with markets continuing to push the JPY lower as expectations of more aggressive action after elections to the weaken the currency grow. The fourth consecutive downgrade of Japan’s economic assessment by the government highlights the urgency for such action.

Asian currencies are finding a little more resistance to further gains as the appreciation of the CNY has stalled over recent days. The most sensitive currencies to the CNY including KRW and TWD will likely face most resistance to further gains. In contrast those currencies that are more USD sensitive including INR and MYR could take advantage of any pause in USD index gains.

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