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.

Econometer.org has been nominated in FXstreet.com’s Forex Best Awards 2011 in the “Best Fundamental Analysis” category. The survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fx_awards_2011

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Asian currencies on the up

The third quarter of 2009 has proven to be another negative one for the US dollar.  Over the period the dollar index fell by over 4%.  The only major currency to lose ground against the dollar over this period was the British pound.  Most other currencies, especially the so called “risk currencies” which had come under huge pressure at the height of the financial crisis, registered strong gains led by the New Zealand dollar, Swedish krona and Australian dollar.  Although the euro also strengthened against the dollar it lagged gains in other currencies over the quarter.

Asian currencies also registered gains against the dollar in Q3 but to a lesser extent than G10 currencies.  Asian currency appreciation was led by the Korean won, Indonesian rupiah and Singapore dollar, respectively.  The under performer over Q3 was the Indian rupee which actually depreciated against the US dollar slightly.  The reason for the smaller pace of appreciation for most Asian currencies was due mainly to intervention by Asian central banks to prevent their respective currencies from strengthening too rapidly, rather than due to any inherent weakness in sentiment.

In fact, Asian currencies would likely be much stronger if it wasn’t for such FX interventions.  A good indication of the upward pressure on Asian currencies can be found from looking at the strength of capital inflows into local stock markets over recent months.  South Korea has registered the most equity capital inflows so far this year, with close to $20 billion of flows into Korean equities year to date but in general most Asian stock markets have registered far stronger inflows compared with last year.   

For the most part, balance of payments positions are also strong.  For example, South Korea recorded a current account surplus of $28.15 billion so far this year, compared to a deficit of $12.58bn over the same period last year.  This is echoed across the region.  Although surpluses are expected to narrow over coming months due mainly to a deterioration in the terms of trade, the overall health of external positions across the region will remain strong and supportive of further currency appreciation.  

The outlook for the final quarter of 2009 is therefore likely to be positive for Asian currencies, with the US dollar set to weaken further against most currencies.  Some risk will come from a potential reversal in global equity market sentiment but overall, further improvements in risk appetite will support capital inflows into the region.  Capital will be attracted by the fact that growth in Asia will continue to out perform the rest of the world and yet again only interventions by central banks will prevent a more rapid appreciation of Asian currencies.

All eyes on Chinese stocks

Equity markets extended their declines overnight as European and US stocks were smacked across the board.  One of the biggest pull backs has occurred in the Chinese stock market where stocks are down by around 17% since early (3rd) August although stocks are still up close to 73% on the year.  Some of this could be on fears of monetary tightening in China as well as missed profit estimates. 

Risk trades were sold and the dollar and yen strengthened whilst bond markets continued to rally.  News that contributed to the move could have included a sharp 35.7% YoY decline in FDI flows to China in July as well as a broad tightening of lending standards in Q2 according to the latest Senior Loan Officer survey by the Fed.  In contrast there was some positive news on the manufacturing front as the US Empire manufacturing survey jumped 13 points to its highest reading since November 2007. 

The Fed announced that the TALF with a capacity of as much as $1 trillion will expire on June 30 rather than December 31 but for other asset backed securities and CMBS sold before January the plan was extended by three months.   This extension failed to prevent a drop in financial shares overnight with the S&P financials index down 4.2%. 

Commodity prices also extended their drop, with the CRB index now down by around 5.6% since 5 August.   This will continue to play negatively for commodity currencies including the Australian, NZ and Canadian dollars, with the currencies looking vulnerable to more downside today.   Expectations of rising oil inventories and a firmer dollar tone are also playing negatively for commodities. 

Some relief may come today from firmer economic data expected in the US and Eurozone.   US housing starts and building permits are set to reveal further signs of stabilisation in the US housing market whilst the German ZEW survey will rise in August on the back of better economic data and past stronger equity market performance.  It is debatable how much economic data can help counter the worsening in equity sentiment but it may at least provide a semblance of relief.  

The dollar index is trading around the top of its recent range and sentiment for the currency has clearly become less negative as reflected in the latest CFTC Commitments of Traders Report which showed a sharp pull back in net aggregate dollar short positions in the latest week.  

Nonetheless, the dollar is likely to show little inclination to break out of its recent ranges against most currencies.  Overall FX market attention will focus on the Shanghai composite to lead the way in terms of risk appetite and overall direction. Thin holiday trading will leave the markets prone to exaggerated moves over the near term.

Risk trades under pressure

Having given presentations in Hong Kong, China and South Korea in the past week and preparing to do the same in Taiwan and Singapore this week it is clear that there is a lot of uncertainty and caution in the air.  

There can be no doubt now that risk aversion has forcibly made its way back into the markets psyche.  Government bonds, the US dollar and the Japanese yen have gained more ground against the background of higher risk aversion. 

Following a tough week in which global equity markets slumped, oil fell below $60 per barrel and risk currencies including many emerging market currencies weakened, the immediate outlook does not look particularly promising.

Data releases are not giving much for markets to be inspired about despite upgrades to economic growth forecasts by the IMF even if their outlook remains cautious.  US trade data revealed a bigger than expected narrowing in the deficit in May whilst US consumer confidence fell more than expected in July as rising unemployment took its toll on sentiment.   There was also some disappointment towards the end of the week as the Bank of England did not announce an increase in its asset purchase facility despite much speculation that it would do so.

Rising risk aversion is manifesting itself in the usual manner in currency markets.  The Japanese yen is grinding higher and having failed to weaken when risk appetite was improving it is exhibiting an asymmetric reaction to risk by strengthening when risk appetite is declining.  Its positive reaction to higher risk aversion should come as no surprise as it has been the most sensitive and positively correlated currency with risk aversion since the crisis began. 

Nonetheless, the Japanese authorities will likely step up their rhetoric attempting to direct the yen lower before it inflicts too much damage on recovery prospects.   The urgency to do so was made clear from another drop in domestic machinery orders last week as well as the poor performance of Japanese equities.  

The US dollar is also benefitting from higher risk aversion and is likely to continue to grind higher in the current environment.  Risk currencies such as the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars, will be most vulnerable to a further sell off but will probably lose most ground against the yen over the coming days.   These currencies are facing a double whammy of pressure from both higher risk aversion and a sharp drop in commodity prices.    Sterling and the euro look less vulnerable but will remain under pressure too.   

There are some data releases that could provide direction this week in the US such as retail sales, housing starts, Empire and Philly Fed manufacturing surveys.  In addition there is an interest rate decision in Japan, and inflation data in various countries. The main direction for currencies will come from equity markets and Q2 earnings reports, however.  

So far the rise in risk aversion has not prompted big breaks out of recent ranges in FX markets.  However, unless earnings reports and perhaps more importantly guidance for the months ahead are very upbeat, there is likely to be more downside for risk currencies against the dollar but in particular against yen crosses where most of the FX action is set to take place.

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