Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

Risk off mood

A ‘risk off’ tone is quickly permeating its way through the market psyche as tensions surrounding the eurozone periphery reach fever pitch. This is reflected in the sharp jump in equity volatility as indicated by the VIX ‘fear’ gauge. Equity markets and risk trades in general look set to remain under pressure in the current climate.

Moreover, the EUR which is finally succumbing to bad news about the periphery will continue to face pressure over the short-term. Against this background economic data will likely be relegated to the background this week but it worth noting that what data there is on tap, is likely to send a weaker message, with data such as durable goods orders in the US as well as various purchasing managers indices (PMI) data in the eurozone today likely to show some slippage.

The Greek saga remains at the forefront of market attention, with restructuring speculation remaining high despite various denials over the weekend by Greek and European Central Bank (ECB) officials. News that Norway has frozen payments to Greece, whilst Fitch ratings agency’s downgrades of Greece’s ratings by 3 notches and S&P’s downgrade of Italy’s ratings outlook to negative, have all contributed to the malaise afflicting the periphery.

This weekend’s local election in Spain in which Prime Minister Zapatero and his Socialist Party suffered its worst defeat in more than 30 years leading to a transfer of power in the Spanish regions, will lead to concerns about the ability of the government to carry out much needed legislative changes.

It is difficult to see any improvement in sentiment towards the peripheral Europe and consequently the EUR over the short-term. In Greece, Prime Minister Papandreou will attempt to push through further unpopular austerity measures through parliament this week in advance of a 5th bailout tranche of EUR 12 billion scheduled for next month. This comes at a time when opinion polls show the government losing more support and 80% of those surveyed saying they would not accept more austerity measures.

The deterioration in sentiment for the EUR has been rapid as reflected in the CFTC IMM data, with net long speculative positions now at their lowest since 15 February and heading further downhill. Conversely, USD short covering has been significant though there is still a hefty USD short overhang, which points to more USD short covering as EUR sentiment sours.

Nonetheless, the USD still has plenty of risks hanging over it including the fact that it still suffers from an adverse yield differential (note that 2-year Treasury yields have fallen to the lowest since 6 December 2010). Safe haven currencies in particular CHF are the key beneficiaries and notably EUR/CHF touched a record low around 1.2354 and is showing little sign of any rebound.

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.

FX Prospects for 2010

There can be no doubt that for the most part 2009 has been a year for risk trades, not withstanding the sell off into year end. The policy successes in preventing a systemic crisis and the massive flood of USD liquidity injected globally kept the USD under pressure for most of the year and the currency became a victim of this success. Risk appetite is likely to improve only gradually over coming months given the still significant obstacles to recovery in the months ahead.  This will coincide with the declining influence of risk on FX markets. 

2010 will not be as straightforward and whilst risk will dominate early in the year interest rate differentials will gain influence in driving currencies as the year progresses. The problem for the USD is that market expectations for the timing of the beginning of US interest rate hikes is likely to prove premature as the Fed is set to hold off until at least late 2010/early 2011 before raising interest rates. The liquidity tap will stay open for some time, and risk trades will still find further support at least in the early part of 2010, whilst the USD will come under renewed pressure.    

The ECB will be much quicker in closing its liquidity tap than the Fed and arguably an earlier reduction in credit easing and interest rate hikes compared to the Fed would favour a stronger EUR.  However, the EUR is already very overvalued and a relatively aggressive ECB policy is unwarranted. Consequently rather than benefiting from more favourable relative interest rate expectations, the EUR could be punished and the EUR is set to decline over much of 2010 following a brief rally in Q1 2010, with EUR/USD set to fall over the year. 

Japan is moving in the opposite direction to the ECB.  FX intervention is firmly on the table though the risk is limited unless USD/JPY drops back to around 85.00. Even at current levels the JPY is overvalued but for it to resume weakness it will need to regain the role of funding currency of choice, a title that the USD has assumed. Efforts by the BoJ to combat deflation will likely help result in fuelling some depreciation of the JPY and it is likely to be the worst performing major currency over 2010, with a move back up to around USD/JPY in prospect.

The issue of global rebalancing will need to involve currencies but the currency adjustments necessary will not be forthcoming in 2010.  USD weakness early in the year will be mostly exhibited against freely floating major currencies which will bear the brunt of USD weakness.  However, the bulk of adjustment is needed in Asian currencies and there is little sign that central banks in the region will allow a rapid appreciation.  China holds the key and a gradual appreciation in the CNY over 2010 suggests little incentive to allow other Asian currencies to appreciate strongly. 

So in many ways 2010 will be one of two halves for currency markets and this has the potential to reignite some volatility in FX markets.  High beta risk trades including the AUD, NZD, NOK and many emerging currencies will see further upside in H1 as the USD falls further.  Gains in risk currencies will look even more impressive when played against the JPY and/or CHF than vs. USD given that they will succumb to growing pressure in the months ahead as their usage as funding currencies increases.

Ongoing rate hikes in Australia and Norway and the likely beginning of the process to raise rates in New Zealand early next year will mean that these currencies will also have the additional support of yield to drive them higher unlike the JPY.  There is a limit to most things however, and eventually the USD will recover some of its lost ground against risk currencies, as it undergoes a cyclical recovery over H2 2010.

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.

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