Fed leaves the dollar in positive mood, euro at risk ahead of ECB

The Fed FOMC unsurprisingly left policy settings unchanged but the statement was perceived as less dovish, leaving a sour taste for risk assets. Crucially the statement did not validate market expectations that the Fed would hold off from tapering (reduction of Treasury and MBS purchases) until March next year, leaving the option of an earlier tapering on the table.

The bottom line is that the decision to taper will be highly data dependent, but the impact on markets was to leave the USD firmer and equity markets lower. The reaction is consistent with our view that a lot of dovishness was already priced into the market and that the risk / reward is for a more constructive USD environment.

Improvements in economic data, albeit from a weak level and a contracting balance sheet, have provided the EUR with support over past months. However, gains will not last and we suspect the EUR will be a casualty of relatively better US growth, Fed tapering and higher US yields over coming months. EUR has lost momentum this week and looks vulnerable to further slippage ahead of next week’s ECB meeting.

Soft inflation data out of Spain and German states yesterday highlights the room for the ECB to sound more dovish next week. Although firmer than expected October Eurozone confidence surveys limited some of the downdraft on the EUR overnight and highlighted further evidence of recovery, it is likely to do little to prevent further pressure on the EUR.

A couple of stronger than expected data releases helped the NOK to strengthen both against the USD and EUR. The August unemployment rate came in lower than expected (at 3.5%) while retail sales beat expectations in September (+0.7%). The NOK has been the only G10 currency to strengthen against the USD during October and after previous underperformance against the EUR, NOK looks set to make further gains against the latter.

One hurdle may be the announcement of Norway’s daily foreign exchange purchases for the coming month. Over September and October FX purchases were NOK 100 million per day and there is little reason to expect any change in November. Assuming that the October manufacturing PMI also registers some improvement tomorrow there is little to stand in the way of further NOK strength. We retain our long NOK/CHF trade idea.

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GBP on a rollercoaster, NOK to bounce back

GBP has had a rollercoaster ride both against the USD and the EUR. On balance, it has fared better than the EUR vs. USD. News that Fitch ratings put the UK’s AAA ratings on negative watch had little impact although it may yet restrain GBP. If anything the news will likely help UK Chancellor Osborne formulate a relatively austere budget next Wednesday. Unlike the beleaguered JPY, GBP has not suffered from a widening in the yield differential with the US.

In fact 2-year UK Gilt yields have echoed the rise in US 2-year bond yields over recent days. This suggests that GBP ought to face less downward pressure compared to other currencies. Although I continue to see further GBP strength against the EUR over the medium term, the near prospects look volatile. Instead, I suggest playing a GBP positive view via the AUD.

It is worth commenting, albeit belatedly, on the outlook for the NOK following the surprise decision by Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank, which cut its policy rate by 25bps on Wednesday. Does it significantly change the outlook for the NOK? I believe it doesn’t and the recent drop in the NOK will provide a good opportunity to reinstate long positions.

Although the central bank may ease policy once again over coming months this will not undermine the NOK given that the influence of interest rate differentials on the currency is limited. Moreover, lower interest rates threaten to push already high property prices even higher suggesting that the Norges Bank may have limited room to cut rates further. Elevated oil prices continue to provide solid support for the currency and unless oil prices correct lower, the NOK will remain well supported versus EUR, with a drop to around 7.45 on the cards.

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SNB shakes up FX markets – Pressure now on Japan?

The action by the Swiss National Bank yesterday rippled through FX markets fuelling sharp moves across major currencies. In case you missed it the SNB introduced a currency floor in EUR/CHF at 1.20 and committed itself to buy FX in unlimited amounts. The last time the SNB did something similar was in 1978 when a ceiling was set against the Deutsche Mark. The sharp initial reaction to the news saw EUR/CHF jump by around 8.5% largely as a result of the shock from the announcement.

The SNB will not need to worry about the inflationary implications of pumping CHF into the market while it is clear that the currency is highly overvalued, supporting their cause. However, the real test will be evident over coming days and weeks in the commitment to hold the 1.20 level at a time when the situation in the eurozone periphery continues to deteriorate and demand for CHF remains strong. The risk is that the SNB may have simply set up a target for markets to attack. One other implication of the SNB’s move is that it could be a trigger for an intensification of ‘currency wars’.

The onus is now on the Japanese authorities to act more aggressively especially if safe haven flows focus increasingly on the JPY and less on the CHF given the new EUR/CHF floor. So far FX interventions have clearly not worked as was the case in Switzerland and Japan’s new Prime Minister is likely to want to prove his credentials. Japan has had a tendency to underwhelm with regard to JPY measures in the past and unless there is a major announcement today USD/JPY is likely to move lower again below 77.00.

Scandinavian currencies are also set to be beneficiaries of the SNB’s decision. EUR/SEK has come under increasing downside pressure over recent weeks even as risk aversion has intensified and it appears that safe haven flows out of Europe are now targeting Scandinavian currencies. As the CHF is now less attractive in this respect, the SEK as well as NOK will find themselves under further upside pressure over coming days and weeks. Both NOK and SEK versus EUR and USD have had insignificant correlations with risk over recent months, highlighting their appeal as anti-EUR currencies.

Another Day, Another Drop In The US Dollar.

The USD index is now close to breaching its November 2009 low around 74.17, with little sign of any turnaround in prospect. A surprise jump in weekly jobless claims to 412k (380k expected) did little to help the USD’s cause whilst higher commodity prices, and in particular energy prices played negatively.

Indeed, many USD crosses have experienced an increase in sensitivity to oil price movements over recent weeks, with the USD on the losing side when oil prices move higher. Commodity currencies including CAD and NOK are the key beneficiaries but EUR/USD is also highly correlated with the price of oil.

Various Fed comments overnight including supportive comments on the USD’s role as a reserve currency have done little to boost USD sentiment despite the generally hawkish slant to comments. A host of US data releases will keep markets busy.

The data are unlikely to deliver any strong surprises but given the growing FX attention on Fed policy, CPI data may take on more importance than usual. Our expectation of a trend like 0.2% increase in core CPI, which is unlikely to cause any consternation within the Fed, suggests that the USD will garner little support.

The ability of the EUR to withstand a torrent of bad news regarding the eurozone periphery is impressive. In particular, peripheral bond yields continue to rise especially Greek yields as expectations of debt restructuring grow. Comments from Germany’s finance minister have added to such expectations. News that the Bank of Spain approved the recapitalisation of 13 bank and that Spanish banks borrowed only EUR 44 billion last month, the lowest since Jan 2008, may have provided some relief.

However, given that markets are already relative hawkish about eurozone interest rates and given growing peripheral worries as well as overly long EUR market positioning, the upside for EUR/USD is looking increasingly restrained, with a break above technical support around 1.4580 likely to be difficult to achieve over the short-term.

AUD and NZD have registered stellar performances over recent weeks as yield attraction has come back to the fore and risk appetite has strengthened. The gains since their post Japan earthquake lows have been in the region of 7.3% and 10.5%, respectively for AUD and NZD.

The additional element of support, especially for AUD has come from central bank diversification, an increasingly important factor for both currencies. The gains in both currencies have been impressive and neither is showing signs of reversing but there are clear risks on the horizon.

One indication of such risks is the fact that market positioning is stretched especially in terms of AUD positioning, with CFTC IMM contracts registering an all time high. The move in AUD especially has been well in excess of what interest rate / yield differentials imply. Whilst I would not suggest entering into short AUD and NZD positions yet, the risks to the downside are clearly intensifying.

G20 Leaves The US Dollar Under Pressure

The G20 meeting of Finance Ministers and Central bankers failed to establish any agreement on clear targets or guidelines. Perhaps the problem of trying to achieve consensus amongst a variety of sometimes conflicting views always pointed to an outcome of watered down compromise but in the event the G20 summit appears to pass the buck to November’s summit of G20 leaders in Seoul where more concrete targets may be outlined.

Officials pledged to “move towards more market determined exchange rate systems” and to “refrain from competitive devaluation of currencies”. What does this actually mean? The answer is not a great deal in terms of practical implications. The first part of the statement is the usual mantra from such meetings and the addition of the latter part will do little to stop central banks, especially in Asia from continuing to intervene given that no central bank is actually devaluing their currency but rather preventing their currencies from strengthening too rapidly.

The communiqué highlighted the need for advanced economies being “vigilant against excess volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates”, but once again this is the mantra found in the repertoire of central bankers over past years and is unlikely to have the desired effect of reducing the “excessive volatility in capital flows facing some emerging countries”. In other words many emerging countries will continue to have an open door to impose limited restrictions on “hot money” flows.

Although the language on currencies was stronger than in previous summits it arguably changes very little in terms of the behaviour of central banks and governments with respect to currencies. The communiqué is wide open to varying interpretations by countries and is unlikely to prevent the ongoing trend of USD depreciation and emerging market country FX appreciation and interventions from continuing over coming weeks.

The onus has clearly shifted to the November summit of G20 leaders but once again it seems unlikely that substantial agreements will be found. In the interim the November 3 Fed FOMC meeting will be the next major focus and if the Fed embarks on renewed asset purchases as widely expected FX tensions will remain in place for some time yet.

So whilst a “currency war” was always unlikely “skirmishes” will continue. In the meantime the USD is set to remain under pressure although it’s worth noting that speculative positioning has recorded a reduction in net aggregate USD short positions over the last couple of weeks, suggesting that some of the USD selling pressure may have abated. Whether this reflected caution ahead of the G20 meeting (as the data predates the G20 meeting) or indicated the USD having priced in a lot of quantitative easing (QE2) expectations already, is debatable.

The path of least resistance to USD weakness remains via major currencies including AUD, CAD and NZD. Officials in Europe are also showing little resistance to EUR strength despite the premature tightening in financial conditions and negative impact on growth that it entails. Scandinavian currencies such as SEK and NOK have also posted strong gains against the USD and will likely continue to show further outperformance.

The JPY has been the best performing major currency this year followed not far behind by the CHF despite the FX interventions of the authorities in Japan and Switzerland. Although USD/JPY is fast approaching the 80.00 line in the sand level expected to result in fresh FX intervention by the Japanese authorities, the path of the JPY remains upwards. Japan is unlikely to go away from the G20 meeting with any change in policy path as indicated by officials following the weekend deliberations.

Two-way FX risk returns

It appears that there is a bit of a sea change taking place in currency markets. Since early June the trend in currency markets would have looked like a one way bet to most casual observers. For instance, the USD index was declining fairly steadily and predictability as US growth worries intensified and markets anticipated a resumption of quantitative easing by the Fed. This changed quite dramatically over recent days, with a significant degree of two-way risk re-entering the market as the USD shook off worries about Fed quantitative easing and instead rallied in the wake of higher risk aversion.

The introduction of two-way risk into the market will cause a rethink of the increasingly fashionable view that the USD was about to embark on a renewed negative trend. This change in market perspective has coincided with renewed concerns about European sovereign risks, even as European growth has come in much stronger than expected over Q2. Other currencies have also lost ground against the USD more recently, with the notable exception of the JPY which remains close to the psychological level of 85.00.

Until recently the move in FX markets since early June contrasted with my view that Q3 would be a period of uncertainty and volatility. Improved risk appetite reflected a decline in uncertainty but whilst I now believe that Q3 will see less of an increase in risk aversion than previously anticipated, my core views remain unchanged. I see the USD resuming an appreciation trend against the EUR and funding currencies (JPY and CHF) whilst weakening against higher yielding risk currencies (AUD, NZD and CAD) over the medium term.

Although FX markets will likely gyrate between the influences of risk aversion on the one hand and growth/interest rates on the other, risk is likely to take the upper hand over the coming weeks. The influence of risk aversion has jumped sharply over the last few weeks for almost all currencies. As risk appetite was improving as it has done for much of the period since early June, it played negatively for the USD but the recent increase in risk aversion – brought about by renewed growth concerns, sovereign worries in the eurozone, with Ireland in particular coming under scrutiny – has managed to reverse this trend. The one-way bet for investors now appears to be over.

Only time will tell if the EUR’s recent bull run has come to an end but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that plenty of good news has now been priced in and that further upside will be much more difficult to achieve. Even the recently strong growth data in the eurozone has thrown up potential problems including growing divergence as well as the potential for a slowdown over coming quarters. Further strengthening of the EUR will be a particular problem for eurozone growth, especially for exporting countries such as Germany. In any case, even the recent drop in the EUR leaves the currency at an overvalued level and susceptible to further falls. Over the coming weeks a period of consolidation is likely, with the EUR set to take a weaker tone.

The JPY in contrast has shown little sign of weakening and continues to flirt with the key psychological level of 85.00 much to the detriment of the Japanese economy, leading to growing frustration from Japanese officials. Much weaker than expected Q2 GDP data has given even more reason to engineer a weaker JPY but as yet the only intervention has come verbally and even this has not been particularly strong. In the absence of FX intervention, the Japanese authorities may be forced to consider other options such as increasing outright JGB purchases.

Like the EUR and JPY, GBP will find it tough to extend gains against the USD especially given that the doves at the Bank of England will likely remain in the ascendancy as growth moderates. GBP is also less undervalued than it was just a few weeks back suggesting that the argument for GBP strength has weakened. Nonetheless, GBP is likely to outperform against a generally weaker EUR ending 2010 around 0.78.

Similarly, CHF will likely maintain its strength against the EUR in the short term but unlike GBP this will likely give way to weakness and a gradual move higher in EUR/CHF to around 1.37 by year end. An eventual improvement in risk appetite and some relative economic underperformance will undermine the case for holding CHF.

Scandinavian currencies are likely to struggle in the short term due to market nervousness about a US double dip in an environment of elevated risk aversion. Interest rates will also play an important role in driving NOK and SEK as will be the case for most currencies eventually. Divergence in rate views for Norway and Sweden suggests holding a short SEK long NOK position. Overall, with two-way risk now much more evident as many investors return from their summer break the FX market will look far less predictable than it did before they left.

What To Watch This Week

The end of last week proved to be a calmer affair than the preceding few days. There was some encouraging news on the Greek front, with Germany finally approving its share of the European Union (EU) aid package whilst Greece appeared to be on track with its budget deficit reduction as the country recorded a cash deficit of EUR 6.3billion in the first four months of the year, a 42% reduction compared to a year earlier. EU officials also agreed on tougher sanctions for countries breaching austerity rules.

There were plenty of negatives to offset the good news however, as European business surveys including the German IFO index and flash eurozone purchasing managers indices (PMIs) revealed some loss of momentum in growth as well as increased divergence. European banking sector concerns intensified as the Bank of Spain was forced to take control of CajaSur, a small savings bank holding 0.6% of total Spanish banking assets, which faced difficulties due to distressed real estate exposure. Its woes highlighted the problems faced by many Spanish savings banks due to property market exposure.

US data releases this week will confirm that economic recovery gathered steam in Q2. May consumer confidence data is likely to record a small gain, due in large part to improving job market conditions, whilst the Chicago PMI is set to retrace slightly in May, albeit from a healthy level. Both new and existing home sales are set to record gains in April, the former following a sizeable gain in March although the drop in house prices likely to be revealed by the Case-Shiller index will continue to fuel doubts about the veracity of the turnaround in the US housing market.

In Europe there is not much in terms of first tier releases and highlights include sentiment data such as German Gfk and French consumer confidence indices, and the May French business confidence indicator. The data are likely to be mixed, and as indicated by last week’s surveys will reflect a relatively healthy Q2 2010, but a worsening outlook for the second half of the year.

In the absence of UK data today there will be plenty of attention on the details of plans by Chancellor Osborne to cut GBP 6 billion from the budget deficit. The measures will be small change ahead of the emergency budget package on June 22nd when much bigger cuts are expected. Nonetheless, the first step today will be a crucial test of the new government’s ability to convince ratings agencies and markets that it is serious about reducing the burgeoning fiscal deficit.

Following the massive positioning adjustments of the last week markets will look somewhat calmer over coming days but risk aversion is likely to remain elevated, suggesting little respite for most currencies against the USD. The recent moves have left net aggregate USD positioning registering an all time high according to the CFTC Commitment of Traders data, in the latest week, but after the slight retracement lower in the USD index, it is set to make further gains over coming days.

It was notable that EUR and GBP looked more composed at the tail end of the week whilst attention turned to the liquidation of long positions in CHF, AUD, NOK and SEK. These risk currencies are set to remain under pressure but there will be little respite for EUR which is set to drift lower, albeit a less aggressive pace than over recent weeks and a re-test of EUR/USD technical support around 1.2296 is likely. GBP/USD has showed some resilience over recent days but remains vulnerable to further downside pressure, with 1.4310 immediate support.

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