GBP troubles, KRW too weak

The Fed FOMC minutes for the January meeting revealed that behind the unanimous vote to leave policy settings unchanged there was some unease about the completion of QE2. Nonetheless, the USD was left weaker given the Fed’s sanguine view on inflation and worries about unemployment. Inflation data will garner most market attention today but the fact that the core rate of CPI inflation is expected to remain well below the Fed’s preferred level could undermine the USD and add a further barrier to the USD’s recovery so far in February. Jobless claims data will also be of interest given the sharp drop last week. Another firm outcome will help to dispel worries about job market recovery.

As warned in my last post, downside risks to GBP were high given the long GBP speculative positioning overhang and hawkish expectations for the BoE Quarterly Inflation Report. In the event the Report revealed a downward growth forecast revision and an upward inflation forecast revision but importantly showed some reluctance to play into market expectations of an early UK policy rate hike. Following on from a weaker than expected UK January jobs report in which unemployment increased, GBP was hit on both counts. GBP/USD is unlikely to veer far from the 1.6000 level, but with markets reassessing interest rate expectations downside risks are beginning to open up.

News yesterday that Moody’s ratings agency has placed Australia and New Zealand’s major banks on review for possible downgrades went down like a lead balloon but once again AUD and NZD showed their usual resilience and acted as if little has happened. AUD and NZD have weakened since the turn of the year. Weaker data and a paring back in policy tightening expectations have contributed to the weaker performance of the AUD and NZD, but markets have gone too far in scaling back the timing and magnitude of interest rate hikes, suggesting that both currencies may bounce back as interest rate expectations become more hawkish.

Asian currencies continue to register mixed performances largely influenced by capital flows. Most equity markets in the region have registered outflows so far in 2011, with the exception of Taiwan and Vietnam. This has been reflected in Asian FX performance, with the strongest performer being the IDR, but its gains have only been around 0.72% versus USD, coinciding with the fact that it has registered some of the least capital outflows this year. Interestingly the worst performing currency has been the THB, one of last year’s star performers. Korea has also registered strong equity capital outflows but this will not persist and a resumption of inflows taken together with positive fundamentals and higher interest rates will boost the KRW this year.

Euro Sentiment Jumps, USD Sentiment Dives

The bounce in the EUR against a broad range of currencies as well as a shift in speculative positioning highlights a sharp improvement in eurozone sentiment. Indeed, the CFTC IMM data reveals that net speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time since mid-November. A rise in the German IFO business confidence survey last week, reasonable success in peripheral bond auctions (albeit at unsustainable yields), hawkish ECB comments and talk of more German support for eurozone peripheral countries, have helped.

A big driver for EUR at present appears to be interest rate differentials. In the wake of recent commentary from Eurozone Central Bank (ECB) President Trichet following the last ECB meeting there has been a sharp move in interest rate differentials between the US and eurozone. This week’s European data releases are unlikely to reverse this move, with firm readings from the flash eurozone country purchasing managers indices (PMI) today and January eurozone economic sentiment gauges expected.

Two big events will dictate US market activity alongside more Q4 earnings reports. President Obama’s State of The Union address is likely to pay particular attention on the US budget outlook. Although the recent fiscal agreement to extend the Bush era tax cuts is positive for the path of the economy this year the lack of a medium to long term solution to an expanding budget deficit could come back to haunt the USD and US bonds.

The Fed FOMC meeting on Wednesday will likely keep markets treading water over the early part of the week. The Fed will maintain its commitment to its $600 billion asset purchase program. Although there is plenty of debate about the effectiveness of QE2 the program is set to be fully implemented by the end of Q2 2011. The FOMC statement will likely note some improvement in the economy whilst retaining a cautious tone. Markets will also be able to gauge the effects of the rotation of FOMC members, with new member Plosser possibly another dissenter.

These events will likely overshadow US data releases including Q4 real GDP, Jan consumer confidence, new home sales, and durable goods orders. GDP is likely to have accelerated in Q4, confidence is set to have improved, but at a low level, housing market activity will remain burdened by high inventories and durable goods orders will be boosted by transport orders. Overall, the encouraging tone of US data will likely continue but markets will also keep one eye on earnings. Unfortunately for the USD, firm US data are being overshadowed by rising inflation concerns elsewhere.

Against the background of intensifying inflation tensions several rate decisions this week will be of interest including the RBNZ in New Zealand, Norges Bank in Norway and the Bank of Japan. All three are likely to keep policy rates on hold. There will also be plenty of attention on the Bank of England (BoE) MPC minutes to determine their reaction to rising inflation pressures, with a slightly more hawkish voting pattern likely as MPC member Posen could have dropped his call for more quantitative easing (QE). There will also be more clues to RBA policy, with the release of Q4 inflation data tomorrow.

Both the EUR and GBP have benefitted from a widening in interest rate futures differentials. In contrast USD sentiment has clearly deteriorated over recent weeks as highlighted in the shift in IMM positioning, with net short positions increasing sharply. It is difficult to see this trend reversing over the short-term, especially as the Fed will likely maintain its dovish stance at its FOMC meeting this week. This suggests that the USD will remain on the back foot.

Exhausted

No the title is not meant to describe how I felt this morning when I woke up but how I feel the market is looking at present in terms of risk trades. Firmer than feared economic data in the US and China and the agreement in Basel on new bank capital ratios boosted risk appetite but the moves are already beginning to fade. It would be easy to jump on the bandwagon but after the sharp gains registered over recent days I would suggest taking a cautious stance on jumping into risk trades at present.

The EUR has played a degree of catch up to risk currencies, rallying sharply against the USD, helped in part by the European Commission which raised its forecasts for the eurozone economy from 0.9% for 2010 to 1.7%. Although the change in forecasts should come as little surprise give that it is now in line with the European Central Bank’s (ECB) expectations the news bolstered the view of economic resilience in the eurozone. Unfortunately as the ECB noted following its last meeting there are plenty of downside risks to growth next year and upcoming data releases will be viewed to determine how sharply growth momentum will slow into next year.

One currency that strengthened was the JPY and this was mainly due the view that Prime Minister Kan will win the contest for leadership of the governing DPJ party in Japan. The race remains very close, with Prime Minister Kan having a slight lead according to Japanese press. The FX market will pay particular attention to the result given that the other contender Ichiro Ozawa has stated his willingness to drive the JPY lower as well as increase fiscal spending. The results of the election will be known shortly and should Ozawa win USD/JPY will likely find support although the bigger influence is likely to be a shift in relative US/Japan bond yields which due to the sell off in US Treasuries over recent days has become more supportive of a higher USD/JPY.

GBP has lagged the move in many risk currencies, failing to take advantage of the weaker USD. There was some relief overnight from an increase in consumer confidence in August according to the Nationwide index, which rose 5 points to 61, from a 14-month low in July. However, any boost to GBP sentiment will have been outweighed by a fall in UK house prices according to RICS, which revealed the sharpest one-month fall in August since June 2004. The data supports the view that the rally in UK house prices could soon be over. Weaker housing activity will also likely limit any further improvement in consumer confidence. Some of this is already priced into GBP however, and over the short-term EUR/GBP may struggle to breach the 0.8400 level.

Another underperformer overnight was the NZD which was hit by disappointing retail sales data for July, which fell 0.4%. Although the drop followed a strong gain in the previous month the data supports the view that the consumer remains cautious in New Zealand, a factor that will likely play into the view that New Zealand’s central bank, the RBNZ will keep policy on hold when they meet tomorrow. NZD slipped off its highs around 0.7347 overnight and also managed to dampen the upside momentum for AUD/USD which will likely struggle to sustain a break through resistance around 0.9350.

Today’s data will provide further direction for the days ahead, with the September German ZEW survey of investor confidence likely to be closely scrutinized. A drop in the economic sentiment gauge to around 10 is expected from 14 in August, highlighting that eurozone growth momentum is beginning to wane. Hard data in the form of eurozone industrial production will also record a weaker performance, likely to drop 0.3% in July. The data will likely cap the EUR today.

In the US the main release is the August retail sales report for which a 0.3% gain in both headline and ex-autos sales is expected. Sales will have been helped by back to school spending although major discounting will have weighed on retailers’ profits. Nonetheless, any gain even if modest will be a welcome development for Q3 growth in the US.

World Cup FX Positioning/Data Highlights

The market tone felt decidedly better over the course of the last week although it was difficult to tell if this was due to position squaring ahead of the World Cup football or a genuine improvement in sentiment. There was no particular event or data release that acted as a catalyst either, with the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of England (BoE) meetings passing with little fanfare.

US data ended the week mixed, with retail sales disappointing in May but in contrast June consumer confidence beating expectations. Although questions about the pace of recovery remain, other data such as the Fed’s Beige Book suggest that recovery remains on track, sentiment echoed, albeit cautiously by Fed Chairman Bernanke last week.

Attention this week will centre on inflation data. Expected benign CPI readings will support the view that the Fed will take its time to raise interest rates. Speeches by the Fed’s Bullard, Plosser and Bernanke this week will be eyed for further clues on Fed thinking.

Central banks in Brazil and New Zealand hiked rates last week but this is not likely to be echoed this week. No change is likely from both the Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank although there will be plenty of attention on the SNB’s comments on the CHF following recent data showing a surge in FX reserves due to currency intervention. The BoJ is unlikely to announce anything new but perhaps some further detail on the loan support plan could be forthcoming.

Manufacturing data will also garner some attention, with the US June Empire and Philly Fed surveys and May industrial production on tap. All three reports will confirm the improving trend in manufacturing activity in the US. Housing data will look weaker, with starts set to pull back in starts in May following the expiry of government tax incentive programmes though permits are set to rise.

In Europe, the June German ZEW (econ sentiment) investor sentiment survey will likely slip slightly due to ongoing fiscal/debt worries but this will be countered by stronger domestic data. In any case the index remains at a high level and a slight drop is unlikely to derail markets.

GBP may find some support form upgrade of UK growth forecasts by the CBI to 1.3% for 2010 and relatively hawkish comments from the BoE’s Sentance in the weekend press warning that inflation is higher than expected, indicating that the Bank may need to hike rates sooner than expected.

Further GBP/USD direction will come from CPI and retail sales data this week as well as public borrowing figures and a report by the new Office of Budget Responsibility on the UK’s fiscal position ahead of the June 22 budget. A break above GBP/USD resistance around 1.4760 is unlikely to materialise.

Despite the many data releases this week, the overall tone is likely to be one of consolidation and reduced volatility in the days ahead. This may allow EUR/USD to gain some ground due to short covering, with the CFTC commitment of traders (IMM) report revealing a further increase in net short speculative positions last week, close to the record set a few weeks back, though we suspect that there will be strong resistance around 1.2227.

The fact that the IMM data revealed that net aggregate net USD long positions reached an all time high last week, highlights the potential for profit taking this week. USD/JPY will look to take out resistance around 92.55 but this looks unlikely unless the BoJ dishes up anything particularly dovish from its meeting.

What to watch

US February non-farm payrolls released at the end of last week put the finishing touches to a week that saw risk appetite continue to improve each day. There were no big surprises from the various central bank decisions including the RBA, BoE and ECB last week though Malaysia’s central bank did surprise by hiking 25bps. The RBA’s 25bps hike was a close call but in the event the Bank delivered a 25bps hike too.

Sentiment towards Greece has improved in the wake of the announcement of fresh austerity measures by the Greek government, which provoked a short covering EUR/USD rally from around 1.3435 lows though the EUR never really showed signs of embarking on the sort of rebound the massive short EUR speculative position had suggested.

US jobs report revealed that non-farm payrolls dropped by 36k and was all the more remarkable given the potentially very negative impact of severe weather distortions to the data. The data provides the setting for a firm start to the week in terms of risk appetite which will likely put the USD under a bit of pressure into the week.

This week’s events include central bank decisions in New Zealand and Switzerland. The RBNZ has already indicated that it sees no reason to raise interest rates in H1 and an unchanged decision will come as no surprise to the market. The NZD offers better potential for appreciation than the AUD in the short term and I suspect that a “risk on” tone at least early in the week will keep the Kiwi supported.

The SNB in Switzerland is also unlikely to offer any surprises in its rate decision with an unchanged outcome likely. It appears that the Bank has take a somewhat more relaxed tone to the strength of the CHF and any comments on the currency will be scrtunised for hints of intervention.

It probably isn’t much of a shock to expect Greece to remain in the spotlight this week as markets continue to deliberate whether Greece needs financial aid and if so, whether it will be provided by EU countries such as Germany and/or France, at least in terms of some form of debt guarantee.

Further tensions within Greece, with more strikes in the pipeline will test the resolve of the government to carry through austerity measures while likely acting as a cap on any EUR upside over coming days. I still think EUR/USD 1.3789 is a tough nut to crack.

Meanwhile, GBP/USD looks like it will find it tough going to gain much traction above 1.50 with political uncertainties in the form of a likely hung parliament as well as what looks like various efforts by the BoE officials to talk GBP down, likely to prevent an real recovery.

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