Markets in limbo ahead of policy rate decisions

Markets are generally range-bound ahead of tomorrow’s Japan, Eurozone and UK interest rate decisions, as reflected in the flat performance of equity markets overnight. Risk appetite remains positive though still lower than the high levels seen during most of March. China’s interest rate hike did not change the market’s perspective, with markets reacting well.

Overnight the Fed FOMC minutes reflected a range of opinions on the timing of the end of QE2 and the Fed’s exit strategy but the majority view was to end QE2 as planned at the end of June leaving markets, with little new to digest. The USD was a little undermined by a weaker than expected US March ISM non-manufacturing survey but losses are likely to be limited.

Meanwhile there was more negative peripheral news in Europe, with Moody’s cutting Portugal’s sovereign credit ratings by one notch, with Moody’s highlighting the urgent need for financial support from the EU. Portuguese debt took a hit but eurozone markets in general including the EUR continue to take such news in their stride, with EUR/USD holding above 1.4200. Firm readings for the eurozone final services purchasing managers index (PMI) in March helped to support sentiment, outweighing the negative impact of a drop in eurozone retail sales.

GBP was a key outperformer, helped by a much stronger than expected services PMI, which helped GBP/USD breach 1.63 overnight. Today’s industrial and manufacturing production data will likely reveal firm readings too, helping GBP to consolidate its gains but the currency looks rather rich around current levels, with risks skewed to the downside.

JPY was another mover, having breached 85.00 versus the USD, with USD/JPY now some 6 big figures higher from its post earthquake lows. Japanese authorities will undoubtedly see a measure of success from their joint intervention but the reality is that the shift in bond yields (2-year US / Japan yield differentials have widened by close to 30 basis points since mid March, are finally having some impact on USD/JPY as reflected in the strengthening in short-term correlations.

EUR/USD remains resilient to negative peripheral news such as the Portugal credit ratings downgrade, with further direction from tomorrow’s European Central Bank (ECB) meeting and accompanying statement. The risk that the ECB is not as hawkish as the market has priced in holds some downside risks to EUR.

Asian currencies are holding up well though it looks as though the ADXY (Bloomberg-JP Morgan Asian currency index) may have hit a short term barrier. Range trading for EUR/USD suggests little directional influence for Asian currencies in the short-term. Nonetheless, portfolio capital inflows continue to support Asian FX with all Asian equity markets recording foreign inflows so far this month. In particular, KRW continues to outperform. Note that Korea has recorded a whopping inflow of $1.1bn in equity inflows month-to-date.

ECB to Hike, BoJ, BoE & RBA on Hold

The better than expected March US jobs report will likely help to shift the debate further towards the hawkish camp in the Fed. There is little this week to match the potency of payrolls in terms of market moving data this week. Instead attention will focus on a raft of Fed speakers over coming days as well as the minutes of the March 15 FOMC meeting.

This week’s Fed speakers include Lockhart, Evans, Bernanke, Kocherlakota, Plosser and Lacker. Of these only Lockhart and Lacker are non voters. Given the intense focus on recent Fed comments FX markets will be on the lookout for anything that hints a broader Fed support for a quicker hike to interest rates and/or reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet.

In any case the USD may struggle to make much headway ahead of an anticipated European Central Bank (ECB) rate hike of 25 basis point on Thursday. Much will depend on the press statement, however. If the ECB merely validates market expectations of around 75bps of policy rate hikes this year the EUR will struggle to rally.

It may also be possible that once the ECB meeting is out of the way the EUR may finally be susceptible to pressure related to ongoing peripheral tensions. Last week the outcome of the Irish bank stress tests, and political vacuum in Portugal ahead of elections set for June 5 were well absorbed by the EUR but it is questionable whether the dichotomy between widening peripheral bond spreads and the EUR can continue.

The Tankan survey in Japan released today unsurprisingly revealed a deterioration in sentiment. The survey will provide important clues for the Bank of Japan (BoJ) at its meeting on April 6 & 7th. Although a shift in Japan’s ultra easy monetary policy is unlikely whilst strong liquidity provision is set to continue, pressure to do more will likely grow. This will be accentuated by a likely downward revision in the economic outlook by the BoJ.

The JPY will not take much direction from this meeting. Nonetheless, its soft tone may continue helped by foreign securities outflows (particularly out of bonds), with USD/JPY eyeing the 16 December high around 84.51. Speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals a sharp deterioration in JPY sentiment as the currency evidence that finally the currency maybe regaining its mantle of funding currency.

It is still too early for the Bank of England to hike rates despite elevated inflation readings and MPC members are likely to wait for the May Quarterly Inflation Report before there is decisive shift in favour of raising policy rates. Even then, members will have to grapple with the fact that economic data remains relatively downbeat as reflected in the weaker than expected March manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) data.

Today’s PMI construction data will likely paint a similar picture. The fact that a rate hike is not expected by the market will mean GBP should not suffer in the event of a no change decision by the BoE this week but instead will find more direction from a host of data releases including industrial production. GBP has come under growing pressure against the EUR since mid February and a test of the 25 October high of 0.89415 is on the cards this week.

Finally, congratulations to the Indian cricket team who won a well deserved victory in the Cricket World Cup final over the weekend. The celebrations by Indians around the world will go on for a long while yet.

US Dollar On A Slippery Path

The USD has been a on a slippery path over recent weeks, weighed down by adverse interest rate differentials despite improving US economic data. Adding to the run of encouraging US data releases the February jobs report revealed a 192k increase in jobs and a drop in the unemployment rate to 8.9%.

In particular the Fed’s dovish tone highlights that whilst asset purchases under QE2 will stop at the end of June, the failure to hit the Fed’s dual mandate of maximum employment and stable prices, implies that the Fed Funds rate will not be hiked for a long while yet. This dovish slant has undermined the USD to the extent that USD speculative positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data dropped to all time low in the week to 1 March. There is certainly plenty of scope for short-covering but the market is no mood to buy the USD yet.

This week’s releases will provide less direction, with a slight widening in the trade deficit likely in January, a healthy gain in February retail sales and a small drop in the preliminary reading of March Michigan sentiment.

In contrast, even the generally hawkish market expectations for the European Central Bank (ECB) proved too timid at last week’s Council meeting as Trichet & Co. strongly implied via “strong vigilance” that the refi rate would be hiked by 25bps in April. EUR/USD lurched higher after the ECB bombshell breaking the psychologically important 1.4000 barrier but appeared to lose some momentum at this level. Should EUR/USD sustain a break of 1.4000, the next level of resistance is at 1.4281 (November high), with support seen around 1.3747.

The lack of major eurozone data releases this week, with only industrial production data in Germany and France of interest, suggests that EUR may consolidate over the short-term with the main interest on the informal Heads of State meeting at the end of the week to determine whether credible plans can be drawn up to restore confidence in the periphery.

This week it is the turn of the Bank of England (BoE) to decide on monetary policy but unlike the ECB we do not expect any surprises with an unchanged decision likely. Further clues will only be available in the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes on 23 March. However, markets may be nervous given that it could feasibly only take another two voters aside from the three hawkish dissenters last month, to result in a policy rate hike. Notably one possible hawkish dissenter, Charles Bean did not sound overly keen on higher rates in a speech last week, a factor that weighed on GBP alongside some weaker service sector Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) data.

UK manufacturing data will be the main data highlight of the calendar but this will be overshadowed by the BoE meeting. GBP/USD could continue to lag the EUR and given a generally bullish EUR backdrop, our preferred method of playing GBP downside remains via a long EUR/GBP position.

Positive Data Run Continues

The batch of data releases in Tuesday’s trading session was generally positive. Leading the way was a stronger than expected increase in the UK manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) for December at 58.3 which coming in at a 16-year high. The data gave a boost to GBP though GBP/USD is unlikely to gain much of a foothold above 1.5600.

In the US, factory orders surprisingly jumped 0.7% in November and whilst the data is second tier it does maintain the run of generally upbeat US data. Meanwhile eurozone inflation came in higher than forecast at 2.2% YoY, above the European Central Bank (ECB) target level for the first time in two years. The outcome is unlikely to trigger a response from the ECB especially given that core inflation remains well behaved. After hitting a post CPI release high of 1.3433 EUR/USD is likely to drift lower in the short term.

Separately the Fed FOMC minutes of the December 14 meeting revealed little to surprise. Of note, FOMC members highlighted that the improvement in economic conditions was insufficient to warrant any change to the asset purchase program. The bottom line for the Fed is that the dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability is still not in reach and therefore they will keep the pedal to the floor in terms of policy stimulus. Although a further round of quantitative easing seems unlikely the Fed is likely to stick it out in terms of the $600 billion in planned asset purchases whilst an actual rate hike is unlikely until well into 2012.

Commodity prices dropped sharply overnight with soft commodities and energy prices in particular leading the declines. Commodity currencies fell as a result, with the AUD also impacted by growing worries about the impact of the Queensland floods. Initial estimates suggest that total damage from the flooding could reach AUD 6 billion and as Queensland represents around 19% of Australian GDP, the impact on growth could be significant. Growth could drop by a sharp -0.8% YoY in Q1 GDP. This is based on the assumptions that 40% of all exports will experience a 30% reduction

Today’s data slate in the US will be crucial to provide the final clues to Friday’s December payrolls report. The ADP jobs report, ISM non-manufacturing survey and Challenger job cuts data are all scheduled for release. The run of positive US data will help the USD to trade on a firm footing over the short term but clearer direction will await the outcome of the December jobs report whilst the beginning of the Q4 earnings season next week will also be influential. The exception to USD strength will continue to be Asian currencies where more upside is likely, but I prefer to play this via short EUR/Asian FX than the USD.

Currencies At Pivotal Levels

Ahead of today’s highly anticipated Fed FOMC meeting markets are holding their breath to determine exactly what the Fed will deliver. The consensus view is for the Fed to announce a programme of $500 billion in asset purchases spread over a period of 6-months. The reaction in currency markets will depend on the risks around this figure. Should the Fed deliver a bigger outcome, say in the region of $1 trillion or above, the US dollar will likely come under renewed pressure. However, a more cautious amount of asset purchases will be US dollar positive.

It has to be noted that the Fed will likely keep its options open and keep the program open ended depending on the evolution of economic data which it will use to calibrate its asset purchases. The USD will likely trade with a soft tone ahead of the Fed outcome, but with so much in the price, it may be wise to be wary of a sell on rumour, buy on fact outcome.

Whatever the outcome many currencies are at pivotal levels against the USD at present, with AUD/USD flirting around parity following yesterday’s surprise Australian rate hike, EUR/USD holding above 1.4000, GBP/USD resuming gains above 1.600 despite a knock back from weaker than forecast construction data, whilst USD/JPY continues to edge towards 80.00. Also, both AUD and CAD are trading close to parity with the USD. The Fed decision will be instrumental in determining whether the USD continues to remain on the weaker side of these important levels.

Going into the FOMC meeting the USD has remained under pressure especially against Asian currencies as noted by the renewed appreciation in the ADXY (a weighted index of Asian currencies) against the USD this week. Although it appears that the central banks in Asia have the green light to intervene at will following the recent G20 meeting the strength of capital inflows into the region is proving to be a growing headache for policy makers. One option is implementing measures to restrict “hot money” inflows but so far no central bank in the region has shown a willingness to implement measures that are deemed as particularly aggressive.

There has been some concern that Asia’s export momentum was beginning to fade as revealed in September exports and purchasing managers index (PMI) data in the region and this in turn could have acted as a disincentive to inflows of capital, resulting in renewed Asian currency weakness. The jury is still out on this front but its worth noting that Korean exports in October reversed a large part of the decline seen over previous months. Moreover, the export orders component of Korea’s PMI remained firm suggesting that exports will resume their recovery.

Nonetheless, manufacturing PMIs have registered some decline in October in much of Asia suggesting some loss of momentum, with weaker US and European growth likely to impact negatively. However, China’s robust PMI, suggests that this source of support for Asian trade will remain solid. Similarly a rise in India’s manufacturing PMI in October driven largely by domestic demand, highlights the resilience of its economy although with inflation peaking its unlikely that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will follow its rate hike on Tuesday with further tightening too quickly.

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