G7 Intervention Hits Japanese Yen

One could imagine that it was not difficult for Japan to garner G7 support for joint intervention in currency markets given the terrible disaster that has hit the country. Given expectations of huge repatriation flows into Japan and a possible surge in the JPY Japanese and G7 officials want to ensure currency stability and lower volatility. Moreover, as noted in the G7 statement today officials wanted to show their solidarity with Japan, with intervention just one means of showing such support.

Although Japanese Finance Minister Noda stated that officials are not targeting specific levels, the psychologically important level of 80.00 will likely stick out as a key level to defend. Note that the last intervention took place on 15 September 2010 around 83.00 and USD/JPY was trading below this level even before the earthquake struck. The amount of intervention then was around JPY 2.1 trillion and at least this amount was utilised today. The last joint G7 intervention took place in September 2000.

Unlike the one off FX intervention in September 2010, further intervention is likely over coming days and weeks by Japan and the Federal Reserve, Bank of France, Bundesbank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and other G7 nations. The timing of the move today clearly was aimed at avoiding a further dramatic drop in USD/JPY, with Thursday’s illiquid and stop loss driven drop to around 76.25 adding to the urgency for intervention. USD/JPY will find some resistance around the March high of 83.30, with a break above this level likely to help maintain the upside momentum.

The JPY has become increasingly overvalued over recent years as reflected in a variety of valuation measures. Prior to today’s intervention the JPY was over 40% overvalued against the USD according to the Purchasing Power Parity measure, a much bigger overvaluation than any other Asian and many major currencies. The trade weighted JPY exchange rate has appreciated by around 56% since June 2007. In other words there was plenty of justification for intervention even before the recent post earthquake surge in JPY

Although Japanese exporters had become comfortable with USD/JPY just above the 80 level over recent months, whilst many have significant overseas operations, the reality is that a sustained drop in USD/JPY inflicts significant pain on an economy and many Japanese exporters at a time when export momentum is slowing. Japan’s Cabinet office’s annual survey in March revealed that Japanese companies would remain profitable if USD/JPY is above 86.30. Even at current levels it implies many Japanese companies profits are suffering.

Upward pressure on the JPY will remain in place, suggesting a battle in prospect for the authorities to weaken the currency going forward. Round 1 has gone to the Japanese Ministry of Finance and G7, but there is still a long way to go, with prospects of huge repatriation flows likely to make the task of weakening the JPY a difficult one. The fact that there is joint intervention will ensure some success, however and expect more follow up by other G7 countries today to push the JPY even weaker over the short-term.

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Japan’s Earthquake Aftermath

The aftermath of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami in Japan will largely drive markets this week outweighing the ongoing tensions in the Middle East. Having been in Tokyo as the earthquake struck I can testify to the severity and shock impact of the earthquake. Aside from the terrible human cost the economic cost will be severe at least for the next few months before reconstruction efforts boost growth. An early estimate suggests around a 1% negative impact on GDP this year.

The government is expected to announce a spending package over coming weeks to help fund relief efforts but this will likely put additional strain on Japan’s precarious debt situation at a time when worries about the country’s fiscal health were already high. Nonetheless, there is around JPY 550 billion available from the Fiscal Year 2010 and FY 2011 budgets even before a supplementary budget is needed.

The initial negative JPY impact of the natural disaster gave way to strength in anticipation of expected repatriation flows by Japanese life insurance companies and other institutions as they liquidate assets abroad in order to pay for insurance payments in Japan. The bias to the JPY will likely continue to be upwards but trading will be choppy.

Many of the margin traders holding extreme long USD/JPY positions will likely reduce these positions in the weeks following the earthquake in order to fulfil JPY demand. This may be countered by some foreign selling of Japanese assets especially given that foreigners have accelerated Japanese asset purchases over recent weeks. Therefore, it’s not a straight forward bet to look for JPY strength.

If however, the JPY strengthens rapidly and threatens to drop well below the psychologically important level of 80 the spectre of FX intervention will loom large. Indeed, following the Kobe earthquake in 1995 the JPY strengthened sharply by around 18% but the USD was already in decline prior to the earthquake and USD/JPY was also being pressured lower by Barings Bank related liquidation.

Therefore, comparisons to 1995 should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, Japanese authorities will be on guard for further upward JPY pressure. The immediate market focus will be on the Bank of Japan (BoJ) meeting today, with the BoJ announcing the addition of JPY 7 trillion in emergency liquidity support to help stabilise markets.

When things are just not right

One knows when things aren’t quite right when a football team wins a game by using a hand to help score a goal rather than a foot.  In this case it was French striker Thierry Henry who helped France to qualify for the world cup at the expense of Ireland.  To English soccer fans this looks like decidedly similar situation to the “hand of god” goal scored by Diego Maradona during the 1986 World Cup. 

Similarly things don’t look quite right with markets at present and what began as a loss of momentum turned into a bit of a rout for US (Thursday) and Asian stocks (Friday).  In turn risk appetite has taken a turn for the worse whilst the USD is on a firmer footing.  Profit taking or simply repatriation at year end may explain some of the market moves but doubts about the pace and magnitude of economic recovery are playing a key role.

Ireland has called for a replay of the soccer game but markets may not get such an opportunity as sentiment sours into year end.  Markets chose to ignore some relatively positive news in the form a  stronger than forecast increase in the Philly Fed manufacturing survey and the improving trend in US jobless claims leaving little else to support confidence. 

The only event of note today was the Bank of Japan policy decision.   Interest rates were kept unchanged at 0.1%.  Given that official concerns about deflation are intensifying interest rates are unlikely to go up for a long while and we only look for the first rate hike to take place in Q2 2011.  The BoJ may however, be tempted to buy more government bonds in the future if deflation concerns increase further.   USD/JPY was unmoved on the decision, with the currency pair continuing to gyrate around the 89.00 level though higher risk aversion suggests a firmer JPY bias. 

In the short term increased risk aversion will play positively for the USD against most currencies, especially against high beta currencies such as the AUD, NZD and GBP.   Asian currencies will also be on the back foot due to profit taking on the multi-month gains in these currencies.

Contrasting fortunes for GBP and JPY

The main FX movers over recent days have been JPY and GBP. Japan’s non interventionist FX stance and the approach of fiscal half year end on September 30 have given markets plenty of appetite to push the JPY higher.  In particular a change in Japanese tax rules which waives taxes on repatriated profits suggests there will be more repatriation flows than usual ahead of fiscal half year end.  Such repatriation flows have played a role in the appreciation of the JPY.    

Even if such flows do not actually materialise the mere speculation that they exist will be sufficient to keep the JPY supported.  Helping the JPY on its way is the view that Japanese officials are not particularly concerned about a strengthening JPY although it is worth noting that Japan’s new finance minister Fujii did note that he was carefully watching the JPY’s rise.  Nonetheless, it appears that the new government’s policy in Japan is in sharp contrast to the previous government’s FX policy which favoured a weaker JPY.  

The positive shift in JPY sentiment over recent weeks has been particularly evident in speculative positioning data which reveals that net JPY speculative positions have hit their highest since 3 February 2009, a sharp turnaround from negative net positioning just three months ago.  Further JPY gains are likely over the short term as speculative appetite for the currency continues to improve. 

In contrast to Japan, UK officials appear to be more comfortable with a weaker currency. Recent comments by Bank of England (BoE) Governor King that a weaker GBP would help exporters has weighed on GBP.  Consequently, speculative sentiment for GBP deteriorated particularly sharply last week, with CFTC IMM data revealing the biggest short GBP positioning since early April 2009.  Even though the latest UK Monetary Policy Committee minutes revealed no sign that the BoE is contemplating expanding quantitative easing, GBP continues to be a much unloved currency.  

Some likely improvements in economic data this week may provide relief to GBP but it will prove limited against the weight of negative GBP sentiment.  The Hometrack housing survey revealed a further increase in UK house prices in September and data this week will likely reveal an upside revision to Q2 GDP, and an improvement in manufacturing confidence.  Overall, despite the encouraging data GBP/USD looks vulnerable to a further downside push.

An unusual dollar reaction

Although many market participants are on summer holidays this has not prevented some interesting market moves in the wake of yet more improvement in economic data and earnings.  The most noteworthy release was the July US jobs report which revealed a better than forecast 247,000 job losses and a surprise decline in the unemployment rate to 9.4%.  Moreover, past revisions added 43,000 to the tally.

Although it is difficult to get too optimistic given that job losses since December 2007 have totalled 6.7 million, the biggest drop since WW2, the direction is clearly one of improvement.  Nonetheless, markets were given a dose of reality by the drop in US consumer credit in June, which gives further reason to doubt the ability of the US consumer to contribute significantly to recovery.

The data spurred a further rally in stocks and a sell of in Treasuries.   Such a reaction was unsurprising but the more intriguing move was seen in the US dollar, which after some initial slippage managed a broad based appreciation in contrast to the usual sell off in the wake of better data and improved risk appetite.

It is too early to draw conclusions but the dollar reaction suggests that yield considerations are perhaps beginning to show renewed signs of influencing currencies following a long period where the FX/interest rate relationship was practically non-existent.  Indeed, the strengthening in the dollar corresponded with a hawkish move in interest rate futures as the market probability of a rate hike by the beginning of next year increased.

Since the crisis began the biggest driver of currencies has been risk aversion, a factor that relegated most other influences including the historically strong driver, interest rate differentials, to the background.  More specifically, much of the strengthening in the dollar during the crisis was driven by US investor repatriation from foreign asset markets as deleveraging intensified.   This repatriation far outweighed foreign selling of US assets and in turn boosted the dollar.

Over the past few months this reversed as risk appetite improved and the pace of deleveraging lessened.  Ultra easy US monetary policy also put the dollar in the unfamiliar position of becoming a funding currencies for higher yielding assets and currencies though admittedly this was all relative as yields globally dropped.   The dollar also suffered from concerns about its role as a reserve currency but failed to weaken dramatically as much of the concern expressed by central banks was mere rhetoric.

Where does this leave the dollar now?  Risk will remain a key driver of the dollar but already its influence is waning as reflected in the fact that the dollar has remained range bound over recent weeks despite an improvement in risk appetite.   As for interest rates their influence is set to grow as markets price in rate hikes and as in the past, more aggressive expectations of relative interest rate hikes will play the most positive for the respective currency.

It is still premature for interest rates to overtake risk as the principal FX driver.   Even if rates increase in importance I still believe interest rate markets are overly hawkish in the timing of rate hikes. A reversal in tightening expectations could yet push the dollar lower.  This is highly possible given the benign inflationary environment and massive excess capacity in the US economy.

Eventually the dollar will benefit from the shift in interest rate expectations as markets look for the Fed to be more aggressive than other central banks in reversing policy but this could take some time. Until then the dollar is a long way from a real recovery and will remain vulnerable for several months to come as risk appetite improves further.

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