CHF under pressure

In sharp contrast to AUD but for the same rationale (improving risk appetite and low volatility) the CHF has succumbed to pressure. Comments this week by Swiss National Bank officials highlighting their resolve to enforce the CHF cap, their belief that the currency is still overvalued, and are prepared to take further steps, highlight that the Swiss authorities wish for a much deeper correction lower in the currency. This is unsurprising as the CHF real effective exchange rate has been on a strengthening path over recent months, much to the likely chagrin of the SNB.

The fact that Swiss CPI inflation dropped back into negative territory on a YoY basis in February reinforces the need to further weaken the currency. Steps such as negative deposit rates and/or FX intervention cannot be ruled out. In the meantime, USD/CHF looks set to test resistance around 0.8930 (26 Feb high).

EUR/CHF still clinging to 1.2000

The job of the Swiss National Bank has become increasingly tougher over recent weeks. Speculation of a Greek exit or ‘Grexit’ and continued flight of capital from Greece as well as other peripheral countries mean that there is more prospect of upside for the CHF than downside versus EUR. The EUR/CHF 1.2000 floor has not deterred investors from parking such capital in CHF, much to the chagrin of the SNB, which has even warned about implementing capital restrictions.

Elevated risk aversion means that inflows of capital to Switzerland from the Eurozone periphery will persist. As a result, EUR/CHF looks set to trade around the 1.2000 floor for some time to come, with the risk that the SNB increasingly has to buy EUR to protect the floor. My forecasts reflect the view that any CHF weakness versus EUR will be extremely gradual in the months ahead as I expect any improvement in risk appetite to be similarly slow.

On the economic front the arguments for CHF weakness have actually lessened. Consumer confidence increased to its highest in a year in April. More importantly from the point of view of the SNB, Switzerland has registered positive CPI readings on a monthly basis for the past three months. Unfortunately, CPI is still negative on an annual basis, meaning that deflationary concerns continue to persist. On balance, the SNB’s fears over deflation will eventually lessen, suggesting in turn that worries about CHF strength will also be pared back.

Although the CHF has remained strong against the EUR it has weakened against the USD, but this is attributable to EUR weakness (due to the EUR/CHF floor) rather than inherent CHF weakness.
It will not be a one-way bet lower against the USD for both the EUR and CHF. The speculative market is highly short both currencies and they could rally in the event of any good news from Greece or the Eurozone. The CHF may also find itself weakening against the EUR if the news is sufficiently good to help stem outflows of capital from Greece and other parts of the Eurozone, but I believe this is unlikely. For the next few weeks at least, ahead of Greek elections, EUR/CHF is set to continue to cling to the 1.2000 floor, with the market set to test the SNB’s resolve.

Euro and Swiss franc under pressure

Positive momentum in risk assets slowed, with higher core bond yields in the US and Europe weighing on sentiment. The USD in particular has been buoyed by higher US bond yields, with the move in line with my long held medium term view of a firmer yield led gain in the USD. Commodity prices in contrast have come under growing pressure, with gold and copper prices sliding in particular. Risk measures continue to improve including my risk barometer, suggesting that the overall tone to risk assets will remain positive.

The main focus today will be on a plethora of US data releases including industrial production, Philly Fed and Empire manufacturing confidence while in Europe attention will be on Spanish and French bond auctions. US data will likely remain upbeat, while the auctions should be well received.

EUR has pulled back sharply over recent not just against the USD but also on the crosses, with EUR/GBP finally playing some catch up yesterday. It’s interesting that the drop in the EUR has occurred despite generally improving conditions for peripheral Eurozone as reflected in narrowing yield spreads between peripheral countries and Germany.

The bottom line is that the EUR is suffering from a widening in the US / Europe (Germany) bond yield differential as it is becoming increasingly clear that the US economy will strongly outperform the Eurozone economy this year. As noted at the beginning of the week EUR/USD was set to drop to below support around 1.3055. Having hit this level, strong support around the 1.2974 level moves into sight.

Ahead of today’s quarterly Swiss National Bank meeting at which no change in policy is widely expected, EUR/CHF has taken a sharp lurch higher, finally moving away from around the 1.2050 level it has been trading at over recent weeks. While I am bearish on the CHF over the medium term further upside in EUR/CHF will be limited over the short term given that the move in the currency is at odds with interest rate differentials which have actually narrowed between the Eurozone and Switzerland. Technical resistance around 1.2298 will cap gains over coming sessions.

As for USD/CHF the picture remains a bullish one, with general USD strength driven by higher yields, pushing the currency pair higher. I look for a test of resistance around 0.9393 over coming sessions.

The case for Swiss franc weakness

EUR/CHF has continued to hug the 1.2000 ‘line in the sand’ enforced by the Swiss National Bank. CHF currently shows little sign of weakening although we continue to see risks of a higher EUR/CHF. Against the USD the CHF has been similarly stable but we look for USD/CHF to move higher eventually. The main imponderable is the timing of CHF weakness. Ongoing Eurozone doubts even after the agreement of a second bailout for Greece mean that the CHF remains a favoured destination for European money.

The outlook for EUR/CHF will depend on how the situation in the Eurozone develops. The recent agreement for a second Greek bailout received a muted reaction from markets, and there is a long way to go before confidence towards a resolution of the debt crisis can be fully restored. Assuming that there will be an eventual improvement in risk appetite, CHF will weaken given the strong correlation between EUR/CHF and risk over the past three months.

EUR/CHF has enjoyed a strong relationship with movements in interest rate differentials over the past few months, with both bond yields and interest rate futures. This implies that it will take a relative rise in German yields versus Swiss yields for EUR/CHF to move higher. This is certainly viable given the deterioration in Swiss economic data over recent months. Indeed, as reflected in the KoF Swiss leading indicator and manufacturing PMI data, the economy is heading downwards.

The threat of deflation has also increased in the wake of unwelcome CHF strength, which has left the currency extremely overvalued according to our measures of ‘fair value’. Growth will be weak this year but the economy may just avoid a negative GDP print. Against this background Swiss bond yields will remain low, along with policy rates. While the outlook for the Eurozone economy is not much better, bond yield differentials between the Eurozone and Switzerland are likely to widen, which will eventually help lead to a higher EUR/CHF exchange rate.

My blog posts will be less frequent over coming days as I am on a business trip to New York. Happy trading.

SNB shakes up FX markets – Pressure now on Japan?

The action by the Swiss National Bank yesterday rippled through FX markets fuelling sharp moves across major currencies. In case you missed it the SNB introduced a currency floor in EUR/CHF at 1.20 and committed itself to buy FX in unlimited amounts. The last time the SNB did something similar was in 1978 when a ceiling was set against the Deutsche Mark. The sharp initial reaction to the news saw EUR/CHF jump by around 8.5% largely as a result of the shock from the announcement.

The SNB will not need to worry about the inflationary implications of pumping CHF into the market while it is clear that the currency is highly overvalued, supporting their cause. However, the real test will be evident over coming days and weeks in the commitment to hold the 1.20 level at a time when the situation in the eurozone periphery continues to deteriorate and demand for CHF remains strong. The risk is that the SNB may have simply set up a target for markets to attack. One other implication of the SNB’s move is that it could be a trigger for an intensification of ‘currency wars’.

The onus is now on the Japanese authorities to act more aggressively especially if safe haven flows focus increasingly on the JPY and less on the CHF given the new EUR/CHF floor. So far FX interventions have clearly not worked as was the case in Switzerland and Japan’s new Prime Minister is likely to want to prove his credentials. Japan has had a tendency to underwhelm with regard to JPY measures in the past and unless there is a major announcement today USD/JPY is likely to move lower again below 77.00.

Scandinavian currencies are also set to be beneficiaries of the SNB’s decision. EUR/SEK has come under increasing downside pressure over recent weeks even as risk aversion has intensified and it appears that safe haven flows out of Europe are now targeting Scandinavian currencies. As the CHF is now less attractive in this respect, the SEK as well as NOK will find themselves under further upside pressure over coming days and weeks. Both NOK and SEK versus EUR and USD have had insignificant correlations with risk over recent months, highlighting their appeal as anti-EUR currencies.

Swiss franc to remain strong

Given the uncertainties enveloping both the US and Europe safe haven and various emerging market currencies have looked increasingly attractive. Currencies that remain on top in the current environment are the CHF and to a lesser extent the JPY, much to the chagrin of the Swiss and Japanese authorities. Indeed, in reaction to unwanted CHF strength the Swiss central bank, SNB unexpectedly cut interest rates and said it will increase CHF liquidity to the money markets. The CHF fell in the wake of the announcement but the impact may prove short lived.

Both the JPY and CHF have registered a strong correlation with risk aversion over the last 3-months, strengthening as risk aversion has intensified. In particular, the CHF has been the best performing major currency this year and shows no sign of turning around despite the fact that it has already strengthened by around 21% against the USD and over 12% against the EUR. The Swiss National Bank had even ceased from intervening in the currency markets given the lack of success and pain on the SNB’s balance sheet.

The Japanese authorities last intervened in the FX market in March 2011 following the devastating earthquake in the country. However, despite the fact that the JPY has strengthened after a brief period of success, the authorities have been reluctant to intervene since. The major explanation for a lack of intervention is that the Japanese authorities blame the drop in USD/JPY on USD weakness rather than inherent JPY strength. A more accurate reason is that the yield differential between the US and Japan has narrowed, leading to JPY strength versus USD while more recently rising risk aversion has pushed the JPY higher.

I am bearish on both the CHF and JPY over the medium term but clearly any drop in these currencies is taking longer than initially anticipated. Higher relative yields taken together with some normalisation in risk appetite will help but the risks at present are still skewed for further CHF and JPY strength in the short term given that risk aversion remains elevated. The fact that peripheral bond spreads in Europe have continued to widen will only raise the attraction of the CHF as a safe haven currency so despite the SNB’s new measures, it may do little to prevent further strength in the currency.

Risk Aversion Creeps Higher

The USD index has dropped by around 17% since June 2010 high and despite a slight bounce this week it is unlikely to mark the beginning of a sustained turnaround. Nonetheless, I would caution about getting carried away with positioning for USD weakness. Whilst an imminent recovery looks unlikely the risk/reward of shorting the USD is becoming increasingly unfavourable.

Until then Federal Reserve comments will be watched closely for clues on policy and there are plenty of Fed speakers this week including a speech by Boston Fed’s Rosengren today and Fed Chairman Bernanke tomorrow. The USD will also gain some direction from jobs data and markets will be able to gauge more clues for Friday’s non-farm payrolls data , with the release of the April ADP employment report today.

The EUR is one currency that has suffered this week. News that Portugal’s caretaker government has reached an agreement with the European Union / International Monetary Fund on a bailout of as much as EUR 78 billion has so far been greeted with a muted response. EUR attention is still very much focussed on the ECB meeting tomorrow and prospects of a hawkish press statement suggest that EUR/USD downside will be limited, with support seen around 1.4755.

The JPY has strengthened by around 5% versus USD since its 6th April USD/JPY high around 85.53, confounding expectations that Japan’s FX intervention following the county’s devastating earthquake marked a major turning point in the currency. A combination of narrowing interest rate differentials with the US (2 year US/Japan yield differentials have narrowed by around 20bps in the past month), strong capital inflows to Japan (net bond and equity flows in the last four weeks have increased to their highest this year), and rising risk aversion have all played their part in driving the JPY higher.

As a result USD/JPY is fast approaching the psychologically important level of 80, a level that if breached will likely lead to FX intervention. Although Golden Week holidays in Japan this week suggest that JPY liquidity may be quite thin, Japanese authorities are likely to remain resistant to further gains in the JPY, likely using thinning liquidity to their advantage.

Despite the JPY’s recent strength speculative positioning over the past four weeks has remained net short JPY, whilst Japanese margin traders have also increased their long USD/JPY bets, suggesting that these classes of investors are not to blame for the JPY’s appreciation. This suggests that FX intervention may not be as successful given that the market is already short JPY.

Given the risk of intervention on USD/JPY, the CHF appears to be an easier choice for safe haven demand against the background of rising risk aversion. The currency has risen to a record high against the USD, gaining around 8.3% so far this year. Given the hints of higher interest rates by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) and resilience economic performance, downside risks for CHF are limited at present unless risk appetite improves sharply. Further gains are likely with USD/CHF likely to test the 0.8570 support level over the short-term.

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