Temporary relief for US Dollar

Downbeat US economic news in the form of a widening US trade deficit, increase in jobless claims and bigger than expected increase in top line PPI inflation contrasted with upbeat earnings from Google. Google shares surged over 9% in after hours trading but US data tarnished the risk on mood of markets, leaving commodity prices and equities lower and the USD firmer. Higher US Treasury yields, especially in the longer end following a poor 30 year auction, helped the USD to push higher.

The USD’s trend is undoubtedly lower but profit taking may be the order of the day ahead of a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke on monetary policy later today and the release of the highly anticipated US Treasury Report in which China may be named as a currency manipulator. A speech by the Minneapolis Fed’s Kocherlatoka (non voter) this morning sounded downbeat, even suggesting that “Fed asset purchases may have a muted effect”. Despite such comments the Fed appears likely to embark on QE2 at its 3 November meeting.

Today is also a key data for US data releases with September data on US retail sales, and CPI and October data on Michigan confidence and Empire manufacturing scheduled for release. Retail sales are likely to look reasonable, with headline sales expected to rise 0.5% and ex-autos sales expected up 0.4%. The gauges of both manufacturing and consumer confidence are also likely to show some recovery whilst inflation pressures will remain benign. Given the uncertainty about the magnitude of QE the Fed will undertake in November, the CPI data will have added importance.

The US trade will likely have resulted in an intensification of expectations that China will be labelled as a currency manipulator in the US Treasury report later today. The August trade deficit with China widened $28.04 billion, the largest on record. At the least it will give further ammunition to the US Congress who are spoiling for a fight ahead of mid-term congressional elections, whilst heightening tensions ahead of the November G20 meeting.

Indeed currency frictions continue to increase although “currency war” seems to be an extreme label for it. Nonetheless, Singapore’s move yesterday to widen the SGD band highlighted the pressure that many central banks in the region are coming under to combat local currency strength. Singapore’s move may be a monetary tightening but it is also a tacit recognition of the costs of intervening to weaken or at least limit the strength of currencies in the region. To have maintained the previous band would have required ongoing and aggressive FX intervention which has its own costs in terms of sterilization.

This problem will remain as long as the USD remains weak and this in turn will depend on US QE policy and bond yields. A lot of negativity is priced into the USD and market positioning has become quite extreme suggesting that it will not all be a downhill bet for the currency. Many currencies breached or came close to testing key psychological and technical levels yesterday, with EUR/USD breaching 1.4000, GBP/USD breaking 1.6000, USD/CAD breaking below parity and AUD/USD coming close to testing parity. Some reversal is likely today, but any relief for the USD is likely to prove temporary.

Shaping up to be a “risk on” week

It’s most definitely turning into a “risk on” week. On the earnings front both JP Morgan Chase and Intel beat forecasts whilst data releases did not disappoint either. In particular, US retail sales came in much stronger than expected. The Fed’s Beige Book also gave markets some good news to chew on. The reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts noted that economic activity “increased somewhat” since the March 3rd report.

The positive tone will continue today with the release of the March industrial production data, expected to show a strong gain over the month (consensus 0.7%), whilst both the Empire State and Philly Fed manufacturing surveys are set to post small gains in April, consistent with strengthening manufacturing activity in the months ahead.

Fed speakers have also been helpful for market sentiment. Fed Chairman Bernanke sounded a little more upbeat on the economy but highlighted the “significant restraints” remaining in the US economy. Bernanke maintained the “extended period” of low rates statement despite some speculation that the Fed was verging on removing this. The net impact of the testimony, improved data and earnings and firmer risk appetite is to keep the USD on pressure. In contrast, commodity currencies including AUD, NZD and CAD, will benefit, both from firmer risk appetite and an upturn in commodity prices.

Despite the positive reception to Greece’s debt auction there is not a lot of faith in the ability of Greece to weather the storm. Reports that Greece will need far more funding than has been initially promised by the EU/IMF – potentially as high as EUR 90 billion over coming years – together with worries about selling the loan package to the public in Germany and other eurozone countries, as well EU comments that Portugal will need further fiscal consolidation, have not done much good for confidence. Technically EUR/USD will see plenty of resistance around 1.3692.

After Singapore’s move to tighten monetary policy via the SGD revaluation, and following close on the heels of India, Malaysia and Vietnam, attention has turned to who’s next in line. South Korea must be a prime candidate, especially following data yesterday revealing a drop in the unemployment rate. Of course, China is very much in the spotlight and is set to embark on monetary tightening measures as well as CNY revaluation soon.

India is set to move again as early as next week, with inflation data today likely to seal the case for another hike (consensus 10.37% in March). The risk remains however, that many Asian central banks are moving too slowly to curb building inflation pressures and may find that they ultimately need to tighten more than they otherwise would have done.

China’s heavy slate of data released will if anything fuel greater expectations of an imminent CNY revaluation as well as monetary tightening. China’s economy grew a very strong 11.9% in Q1, above already strong consensus expectations, whilst CPI rose 2.4% YoY in March.

The growth data alongside further evidence of accelerating real estate prices highlight the risks of overheating in the economy and the need to act quickly to curb inflation threats. Given this expectation, firm risk appetite, and more follow through from Singapore’s FX move, the outlook for other Asian currencies remains positive.

Singapore revalues, Asian currencies jump

The positive tone to risk appetite is keeping the USD on the back foot and for once FX attention has turned away from events in Greece. Before elaborating further and staying with Greece, it’s worth highlighting that the outcome of Greece’s note auction was reasonably solid, with more debt than anticipated being sold. However, the cost of borrowing for Greece rose compared to the previous auction in January, which means that the Greece will still suffer higher funding costs to roll over debt.

The positive reception to the debt offering was not particularly surprising given that it followed so closely after the EU/IMF loan package announcement but it is difficult to see sentiment for Greece and the EUR for that matter, getting much of a lift. The main positive for the EUR is the fact that market positioning remains very short but EUR/USD is likely to struggle to make much headway above technical resistance around 1.3653.

More interestingly Asian central banks are continuing on the track towards fighting rising inflation pressure and Asian currencies, in particular the SGD, were boosted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) decision to revalue its currency. Singapore has moved back to a policy of a “modest and gradual appreciation” of the SGD from a policy of zero appreciation, which obviously implies openness to further FX appreciation in the weeks and months ahead.

The rationale for the decision was clear and as revealed in the strong first quarter Singapore GDP data which revealed a 13.1% annual rise. Stronger growth is fuelling growing inflationary concern and to combat this Singapore’s MAS will allow greater SGD appreciation. The reaction in other Asian currencies was also positive, with markets (quite rightly in my view) that other Asian central banks will be more tolerant of currency strength in their respective currencies.

Moreover, Singapore’s move was pre-emptive, perhaps with one eye on an imminent revaluation in China. The recent easing in tensions between the US and China has if anything increased the likelihood that China revalues its currency, the CNY, sooner rather than later, and most likely before the end of Q2 2010. Whatever the rationale, strengthening inflation pressure across the region, will mean a less FX interventionist stance in Asia, and likely stronger currencies over coming months.

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