Lingering Disappointment

Another soft close to US stock markets at the end of last week sets up for a nervous start to the week ahead.  The S&P 500 has now declined for a third straight week, with tech stocks leading the way lower as more froth is blown way from the multi-month run up in these stocks.  Lingering disappointment in the wake of the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting is one factor that has weighed on risk assets.  More details on how the Fed plans to implement its new policy on average inflation targeting will be sought. Markets will also look to see whether the Fed is pondering any changes to its Quantitative Easing program. This week Fed officials will get the opportunity to elaborate on their views, with several Fed speeches in the pipeline including three appearances by Fed Chair Powell. 

Disappointment on monetary policy can be matched with a lack of progress on the fiscal front, with hopes of an agreement on Phase 4 fiscal stimulus ahead of US elections fading rapidly.  A loss of momentum in US economic activity as reflected in the NY Fed’s weekly economic index and declining positive data surprises as reflected in the Citi Economic Surprise Index, are beginning to show that the need for fresh stimulus is growing.  On the political front, the situation has become even more tense ahead of elections; following the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attention this week will focus on President Trump’s pick to replace her, adding another twist to the battle between Democrats and Republicans ahead of the election.    

Another major focal point ahead of elections is US-China tensions, which continue to simmer away. China’s economy and currency continue to outperform even as tensions mount.  August’s slate of Chinese data were upbeat and China’s currency (CNY) is increasingly reflecting positive economic momentum, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index rising to multi week highs.  There is every chance that tensions will only get worse ahead of US elections, likely as the US maintains a tough approach in the weeks ahead but so far Chinese and Asian markets in general are not reacting too much.  This may change if as is likely, tensions worsen further. 

After last week’s heavy slate of central bank meetings, this week is also going to see many central banks deliberate on monetary policy.  The week kicks off with China’s Loan Prime Rate announcement (Mon), followed by policy decisions in Hungary and Sweden (both Tue), New Zealand, Thailand, Norway (all on Wed), and Turkey (Thu).  Markets expect all of the central banks above to keep policy unchanged as was the case with the many central banks announcing policy decisions last week.  The lack of central bank action adds further evidence that 1) growth is starting to improve in many countries and 2) the limits of conventional policy are being reached.  While renewed rounds of virus infections threaten the recovery process much of the onus on policy action is now on the fiscal front. 

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.

Central banks in the spotlight

The market mood continues to be weighed down by a combination of worries including monetary tightening in China and Greece’s debt woes. Consequently, risk aversion has taken a turn for the worse over the last couple of weeks. Measures of currency and equity market volatility have also spiked. Meanwhile, risk currencies have remained under pressure, especially those that are most sensitive to risk aversion including AUD, NZD, CAD, and a long list of emerging market currencies.

Greece’s problems remain a major drag on the EUR, with speculative sentiment for the currency dropping close to the all time low recorded in September 2008, according to the CFTC IMM data. Further developments including news that the European Commission will officially recommend that Greece should implement more severe cuts on public sector spending are unlikely to help to reverse negative sentiment for the currency. A lack of confidence and scepticism over Greece’s ability to cut its budget deficit suggest little respite for the EUR in the weeks ahead.

Markets will have plenty of other things to focus on this week, with various manufacturing and service sector PMIs, four major central bank decisions, and the January US non-farm payrolls report, due for release. The PMIs are likely to confirm that output in both manufacturing and service industries remains expansionary but only consistent with limited growth rather than the rapid rebound in activity seen following past recessions.

The most interesting central bank decision this week is likely to be that of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Recent data has if anything given more reason for the central bank to raise interest rates, including the latest release which was the TD Securities inflation gauge, which jumped 0.8% in January, the biggest increase in 6-months. Although a hike is now largely discounted, some hawkish rhetoric from the RBA could be sufficient to give the AUD some support.

Although the UK Bank of England is unlikely to shift policy at its meeting on Thursday the statement will be scrutinized for clues as to whether quantitative easing is over. Any indication that there will be no further QE measures will play positively for GBP given that it has been restrained by speculation that the BoE will increase asset purchases. No change is also expected by the ECB but once again Greece will likely dominate the press conference. Meanwhile Norway’s Norges Bank is likely to pause in its policy of gradual tightening.

Clearly the funding currency of choice, the USD, has been one of the main beneficiaries of higher risk aversion and this has been reflected in the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders report, which shows that net short aggregate USD speculative positions have dropped sharply, with USD positioning close to flat again. Similarly, the other beneficiary, namely the JPY, has also seen a significant shift in positioning as shorts have been covered. Expect more to come.

Appetite for carry trades was not be helped by the news that the UK’s Lord Turner has signalled a regulatory crackdown on FX carry trades. The report in the UK press fuelled a sell of in JPY crosses but is unlikely to have more than a short term market impact given the practical difficulties in regulating carry trades. Nonetheless, the fact that speculative positioning is still quite long in the AUD, NZD and CAD suggest scope for more downside in such currencies in the current risk averse environment.

Dollar on top as central banks deliberate

There has been a veritable feast of central bank activity and decisions with most attention having been on the Fed’s decision.  In the event the FOMC meeting delivered no surprises in its decision and statement.  Basically the Fed acknowledged the recent improvement in economic activity but continued to see inflation as subdued and maintained that policy rates will remain low for an “extended period”.  The Fed also noted that most liquidity facilities were on track to expire on 1 February suggesting that they remain on track to withdraw liquidity.  

There was similarly no surprise in the Riksbank’s decision in Sweden to leave interest rates unchanged, with the Bank reiterating that it would maintain this stance through the autumn of 2010.  The SEK has been stung by outflows due to annual payments of premiums to mutual funds by the Pension Authority but the impact of this has now largely ended leaving the currency in better position.  Norway’s Norges Bank unexpectedly raised interest rates, for a second time, increasing its deposit rate by 25bps to 1.75%, with the surprise evident in the rally in NOK following the decision.   The other central bank to surprise but in the opposite direction was the Czech central bank which cut interest rates by 25bps.  

In contrast to the Norges Bank’s hawkish surprise the RBA has helped to toned down expectations for further rate hikes in Australia, with Deputy Governor Battellino suggesting that monetary policy was back in a “normal range” in contrast to the perception that policy was still very accommodative.   Weaker than expected Q3 GDP (0.2% QoQ versus forecasts of a 0.4% QoQ rise) data fed into the dovish tone of interest rate markets fuelling a further scaling back of rate hike expectations, casting doubt on a move at the February 2010 RBA meeting and pushing the AUD lower in the process.  Against this background AUD continues to look vulnerable in the short term, especially under the weight of year end profit taking and the resurgent USD.  

There was also some surprise in the amount of lending by the ECB, with the Bank lending EUR 96.9 bn in third and final tender of 1-year cash despite the cost of the loan being indexed to the refi rate over the term of the loan rather than being fixed at 1%.  There was also a sharp decline in the number of banks bidding compared to earlier 1-year auctions but at a much higher average bid.  This implies that some banks in Europe remain highly dependent on ECB funding despite the improvement in market conditions.   The EUR continues to struggle and its precipitous drop has shown little sign of reversing, with the currency set for a soft end to the year.  A break below technical support around 1.4407 opens the door to a fall to around 1.4290.   

The USD is set to retain its firmer tone in the near term though we would caution at reading its recent rally as marking a broader shift in sentiment.  The move in large part can be attributed to position adjustment into year end and is being particularly felt by those currencies that have gained the most in recent months.  Hence, the softer tone to Asian currencies and commodity currencies which appear to be bearing the brunt of the rebound in the USD.   Going into next year USD pressure is set to resume but for now the USD is set to remain on top, with the USD index on track to break above 78.000.

What’s driving FX – Interest rates or risk?

The November US retail sales report has really set the cat amongst the pigeons. For so long we have become accustomed to judging the move in the USD based on daily gyrations in risk aversion. Well, that may all be about to change. There was an inkling that all did not look right following the release of the November jobs report which unsurprisingly helped to boost risk appetite but surprisingly boosted the USD too.

It was easy to dismiss the USD reaction to year end position adjustment, markets getting caught short USDs etc. What’s more the shift in interest rate expectations following the jobs report in which markets began to price in an earlier rate hike in the US was quickly reversed in the wake of Fed Chairman Bernanke’s speech highlighting risks to the economy and reiterating the Fed’s “extended period” stance.

However, it all has happened again following the release of the November retail sales data, which if you missed it, came in stronger than expected alongside a similarly better than forecast reading for December Michigan confidence. The USD reaction was to register a broad based rally as markets once again moved to believe that the “extended period” may not be so extended after all.

Interest rates will become increasingly important in driving currencies over the course of the next few months but if anyone thinks that the Fed will shift its stance at this week’s FOMC meeting, they are likely to be off the mark. No doubt the Fed will note the recent improvement in economic data but this is highly unlikely to result in a change in the overall stance towards policy.

Further improvements in US data this week including industrial production, housing starts, Philly Fed and Empire manufacturing may lead markets to doubt this but the Fed calls the shots and a potentially dovish statement may act to restrain the USD this week. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to rule out the influence of risk appetite on currencies just yet and with a generally positive slate of data expected, firmer risk appetite will similarly act as a cap on the USD this week.

Other than the US events there is plenty of other potentially market moving data to digest this week. More central banks meet this week including the Riksbank, Norges Bank and Bank of Japan. No change is expected from all three but whilst the Riksbank is set to maintain a dovish stance the Norges Bank meeting is a closer call. So soon after the emergency BoJ meeting, a shift in policy appears unlikely but the pressure to increase Rinban (outright JGB buying) operations could throw up some surprises for markets.

Europe also has its fair share of releases this week including the two biggest data for markets out of the eurozone, namely, the German ZEW and IFO surveys as well as the flash December PMI readings. The biggest risk is for the ZEW survey which could suffer proportionately more in the wake of recent sovereign concerns in the Eurozone. Sovereign names may still lurk to protect the downside on EUR/USD and if the USD finds it tougher going as noted above, the EUR may be able to claw back some of its recent losses.

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