US Dollar Tensions

There was considerable relief, most acutely in the US administration, that the US August jobs report revealed a better than expected outcome. To recap, private sector payrolls increased by 67k vs. an upwardly revised 107k in July whilst total non farm payrolls dropped 54k. The data sets the market up for a positive start to the week in terms of risk appetite despite Friday’s drop in the August US non-manufacturing ISM index, deflating some of the market’s upbeat mood.

Once again I wonder how long positive sentiment can be sustained with so many doubts about recovery prospects and limited ammunition on the fiscal front as well as some reluctance on the monetary front, to provide further stimulus should a double dip become a reality.

Markets will be treated to several major central bank decisions including from the Bank of Japan, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Reserve Bank of Australia this week. These meetings are set to prove uneventful, with unchanged decisions across the board expected although the Bank of Canada decision is a tough call.

The main US release this week is the Fed’s Beige Book on Wednesday, a report which will help the Fed to prepare for the FOMC meeting on September 21. The evidence contained within it is unlikely to be positive reading, with consumer spending set to be relatively soft and evidence of recovery likely to remain patchy.

On Thursday the US July trade deficit is set to reveal some narrowing and as usual the deficit with China will be of interest given the renewed tensions over FX policy. FX tension seems to be intensifying once again due to the relatively slow pace of CNY appreciation since the June de-pegging as well as political posturing ahead of November US mid-term elections. A deterioration in US trade data, a factor that largely contributed to the soft Q2 GDP outcome in contrast to a strengthening in China’s trade surplus will have added fuel to the fire.

The firmer risk backdrop has put the USD on the back foot, with the USD index dropping sharply overnight. Nonetheless, speculative USD positioning as reflected in the CFTC IMM data reveals further short covering up to the end of August, implying USD speculative sentiment is actually turning less negative.

Another country which has a different sort of tension regarding the USD is Japan. Improving risk appetite will likely prevent the JPY from visiting previous highs against the USD but will do little to reduce FX intervention speculation. Indeed, there was more jawboning over the weekend on the subject, with Japan’s finance minister Noda reiterating that Japan would take decisive action to stem the JPY’s appreciation but adding that coordinated FX intervention was a difficult option. Clearly Japan us unlikely to succeed with unilateral FX intervention.

Political events have added to the debate on FX policy as focus turns to the election for leader of the ruling DPJ party next week, with a battle looming between current Prime Minister Kan and challenger Ozawa. Although Ozawa is unpopular with the electorate he yields plenty of political power, and appea rs to be more inclined towards FX intervention. Having failed to sustain a move above 85.00 the pull back in USD/JPY suggests little appetite to extend gains, likely leaving USD/JPY in a relatively tight range, with strong support around 83.55 and resistance around 85.23.

Addicted to the medicine

It comes as a relief to markets that G20 officials have agreed it is too early to begin withdrawing massive fiscal, monetary and financial support.   However, it is hardly surprising that officials are not formulating an early exit from emergency measures especially given the ongoing uncertainty about the pace and shape of global economic recovery.  

The latest US jobs report did not help clarify the outlook for markets as a smaller than forecast drop in employment in August (-216k) weighed against a surprise jump in the unemployment rate to a 26-year high of 9.7% and downward revisions to past months employment data.

There is a growing possibility that the Fed’s expectation the unemployment rate will breach 10% by the end of the year looks may be hit even earlier.  Fears about a “jobless recovery” will likely increase as a lack of hiring is set to persist for some time yet. 

The absence of any near term reversal of stimulus measures reduces the risk of a “double dip” recession but at some point there has to be a reckoning. Fiscal positions have blown out for many countries and will eventually require spending cuts, higher taxes and/or privatisation in addition to likely increases in the retirement ages for workers, to rectify them. It is questionable how sustainable recovery will be once such measures begin to be implemented.

In the meantime, it is not even evident that policy is working efficiently. Arguably yields on bonds and corporate debt are lower than they would otherwise have been had it not been for central bank actions but lenders are still not passing the additional liquidity to consumers and households against the background of fears about a rising tide of bad loans and delinquencies.

I would compare this to a patient who came close to death and has finally come off life support as the worst passed but has relied on support in the form of various strong medicines to keep him (or her) going.  The risk that the patient has become overly dependent on the drugs has grown but it is highly unclear how he will fare once he is weaned off.  

Fears about the ability of the patient to stand on his own two feet will increase.  The risk that the patient will relapse is intensifying but his ability to pay for more medicine is already diminishing and his options are running out quickly.

Saturated by good news

We are currently moving into an environment where economic data is becoming less and less influential in moving markets and this could continue for some weeks.  The bottom line is that so much recovery news is in the price that the continuing run of better than forecast data are having only a limited impact.  Over recent days this run has included firmer than forecast readings on US manufacturing sentiment, consumer sentiment, housing activity and durable goods orders.  The market has become saturated with good news and is showing signs of fatigue.  

Just take a look at the reaction to the latest numbers. Equity markets barely flinched in reaction to positive data including a surge in new home sales and a jump in durable goods orders.  In Europe, the German IFO recorded its biggest increase since 1996.  Perhaps the subdued market reaction was due to the details of some of the reports which could have been considered as not as upbeat as the headlines suggested.  However, this explain is tenuous at best.  

News that China’s state council is studying restrictions on overcapacity in industries including steel and cement will not have helped market sentiment as concerns about Chinese growth are likely to resurface. Nonetheless, the most likely explanation for the lack of momentum in markets is fatigue.  There have been plenty of positive data surprises over recent weeks and markets have become increasingly desensitised to such news. 

Another explanation of the failure of positive data to boost sentiment is that risk appetite is almost back to pre-crisis levels according to many indicators I follow.  Indeed, further impetus for risk currencies will be more limited in the months ahead as the room for a further decline in risk aversion is becoming more limited.

This combined with growing fatigue will have interesting consequences. Firstly it suggests a degree of dollar and yen resilience over coming weeks and growing pressure on risk trades, especially commodity currencies which will suffer disproportionately to fears about Chinese growth and lower commodities demand. 

Nonetheless, consolidation in the weeks ahead rather than any sharp moves is the most likely path.  Although the overall trend of improving risk appetite will continue it is already becoming evident that it will take a lot more to drive risk appetite higher than a steady stream of data showing that the global economy is turning around. In any case, currencies have become less sensitive to the gyrations in risk suggesting that other influences will be sought in the months ahead.  In the meantime range trading will continue. 

The reduced swings in currencies have taken FX largely off the radar as far as policy makers are concerned and it is difficult to see the topic being a major issue at upcoming policy meetings. Lower currency volatility is clearly a boon for policy makers and reflects some “normalisaiton” in currency markets. It perhaps also reflects the fact that FX valuations are less of out synch than they were a few months back, with the USD far less overvalued against many currencies.

A set back for the pound

The multi week rally in the pound (GBP) has hit a snag as the currency has failed to extend gains above its recent highs around 1.66 against the dollar (USD).  The surprising fall in UK retail sales, with sales dropping by 0.6% from April compared to expectations of a 0.3% increase, dealt GBP another blow.   Sales were down 1.6% from a year earlier.  This is bad news for those that had believed that the UK consumer was enduring the economic downturn with some resilience. 

The reality is that the recovery in the economy will be a bumpy ride.  Whilst there have been some signs of improvement in the economy it is by no means a broad based pattern.  I would warn at getting too carried away with recovery expectations.  There have been clear signs of strengthening in both manufacturing and service sector survey data but they still only point to a gradual recovery in the months ahead. 

Moreover, some UK housing market indicators have pointed to early signs of recovery but a lot of this is due to a lack of supply and at best the housing market is entering a period of stabilisation.   Despite the signs of economic stabilisation the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) cut its forecasts for the UK economy to -3.8% this year compared to a previous forecast of -2.8%.  

Meanwhile, UK banks continue to restrain credit and may even need more equity capital on top of the $158 billion in capital already raised according to Bank of England governor Mervyn King in his Mansion House speech.  He also warned about a “protracted” economic recovery. The good news is that the BoE is in no rush to take back its aggressive monetary easing and £125 billion asset purchase plan, but unless banks pass the benefits of this onto borrowers the fledgling recovery could stall quite quickly.   

The desire not to act quickly to reverse monetary policy was echoed in the minutes of the June BoE meeting, which revealed a unanimous 9-0 vote to maintain the status quo on policy.  The minutes also noted that the near term risks to the economy had lessened but monetary policy committee members remained cautious about the medium term prospects.  It is likely that the BoE will take several more months to gauge how successful policy has been. 

All of this highlights that GBP will be vulnerable to periodic bouts of profit taking and reversal.  Its ascent from its lows against the USD below 1.40 has been dramatic and rapid.  I believe that much of its gain has been justified especially as it had fallen to extreme levels of undervaluation.  Moreover, aggressive policy actions, both on fiscal and monetary policy, suggest that UK economic recovery will come quicker than Europe. This implies that GBP will at the least continue to recover against the euro (EUR) despite the weak retail sales induced set back.   

I also look for GBP to extend gains against the USD over coming months, with GBP/USD likely to end the year in the 1.70-1.80 region rather than low 1.60s where it is now. Market positioning leaves plenty of scope for GBP short covering over coming weeks adding further potential for recovery.  GBP appreciation will not continue in a straight line however, but set backs going forward should be looked upon as providing opportunities to rebuild long positions.

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