No Let Up in USD Pressure

At the end of a momentous week for currency markets it’s worth taking stock of how things stand. Much uncertainty remains about the global growth outlook, especially with regard to the US economy, potential for a double-dip and further Fed quantitative easing. Although there is little chance of QE2 being implemented at next week’s Fed FOMC meeting speculation will likely remain rife until there is clearer direction about the path of the US economy.

In Europe, sovereign debt concerns have eased as reflected in the positive reception to debt auctions this week. Nonetheless, after a strong H1 2010 in terms of eurozone economic growth the outlook over the rest of the year is clouded. Such uncertainty means that markets will also find it difficult to find a clear direction leaving asset markets at the whim of day to day data releases and official comments.

The added element of uncertainty has been provided by Japan following its FX intervention this week. Whilst Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention this will not only keep the JPY on the back foot but will provide a much needed prop for the USD in general. Indeed Japan’s intervention has had the inadvertent effect of slowing but not quite stopping the decline in the USD, at least for the present.

The fact that Japanese officials continue to threaten more intervention suggests that markets will be wary of selling the USD aggressively in the short term. The headwinds on the USD are likely to persist for sometime however, regardless of intervention by Japan and/or other Asian central banks across Asia, until the uncertainty over the economy and QE2 clears.

Japan’s intervention has not gone down well with the US or European authorities judging by comments made by various officials. In particular, the FX intervention comes at a rather sensitive time just as the US is piling on pressure on China to allow its currency the CNY to strengthen further. Although US Treasury Secretary Geithner didn’t go as far as proposing trade and legal measures in his appearance before Congress yesterday there is plenty of pressure from US lawmakers for the administration to take a more aggressive stance, especially ahead of mid-term Congressional elections in November. Ironically, the pressure has intensified just as China has allowed a more rapid pace of CNY nominal appreciation over recent days although it is still weaker against its basket according to our calculations.

Another country that has seen its central bank intervening over many months is Switzerland, with the SNB having been aggressively intervening to prevent the CHF climbing too rapidly. However, in contrast to Japan the SNB is gradually stepping back from its intervention policy stating yesterday that it would only intervene if the risk of deflation increased. Even so, Japan may have lent the Swiss authorities a hand, with EUR/CHF climbing over recent days following Japan’s intervention.

The move in EUR/CHF accelerated following yesterday’s SNB policy meeting in which the Bank cut its inflation forecasts through 2013, whilst stating that the current policy stance in “appropriate”. Moreover, forecasts of “marked” slowdown in growth over the rest of the year highlight the now slim chance of policy rates rising anytime soon. Markets will eye technical resistance around 1.3459 as a near term target but eventually the CHF will likely resume its appreciation trend, with a move back below EUR/CHF 1.3000 on the cards.

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The Pain Of A Stronger Swiss Franc

Volatility and increasingly large market swings are characterizing current market conditions. A warning by Fitch on the UK’s “formidable” fiscal challenge, concerns about Bulgaria’s public finance statistics and a massive public sector strike in Spain, combined to fuel another bout of risk aversion.

Hungary’s government attempted to diffuse worries about its finances, with the country’s Prime Minister listing measures including cutting public pay and prohibiting mortgages denominated in foreign currencies, in order to hit the 3.8% of GDP budget deficit target. There was also some good news in the US, with small business confidence (NFIB) rising to its highest level since September 2008 whilst ABC consumer confidence edged higher.

The US Beige Book and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony on the US economy to Congress, mark the highlights today. The Beige Book is set to reveal further signs of economic recovery but with limited inflation pressures. Bernanke is likely to maintain a similar tone to comments he made yesterday, highlighting a “moderate” economic recovery, with unemployment likely to stay “high for a while”. His testimony will be scrutinized for the timing of rate hikes, and any elaboration on his comments about rates rising before the economy is at full employment.

Against the background of the many and varied uncertainties still afflicting markets maintain a sell on rallies view on risk trades is still the best option. EUR/USD will struggle to breach resistance around 1.2010 and remains susceptible to test support around 1.1826. GBP/USD could target fresh lows in a “negative reversal”, with potential to head back down to 1.3996.

Confidence has plummeted to extreme lows and it will be several months before appetite for risk trades returns. The AUD and NZD as well as many Asian currencies will struggle over the interim period before their appreciation trend finally resumes.

In contrast to the weakening of risk currencies, CHF strength is showing little sign of letting up. Switzerland recorded a massive 50% jump in FX reserves in May to CHF 232 billion from CHF 153 billion in April. This is not usually market moving data but the scale of the jump in reserves is huge and it is not just due to valuation changes. The Swiss National Bank (SNB’s) effective abandonment of defending a particular level in EUR/CHF turned into more a smoothing operation but this did not stop the bank from massive FX interventions. Despite the interventions EUR/CHF dropped by 0.8% over the month.

Aside from alleviating upward pressure on the CHF the interventions had an indirect effect of reducing the pain of holders of CHF mortgages. E.g. around 30% of Hungary’s bank loans and 60% of mortgages are denominated in CHF but countries across Europe have plenty of CHF denominated loans, especially Austria. Although Hungary announced steps to meet its deficit targets its woes are far from over.

The CHF has appreciated by around 3% since the beginning of May versus HUF, exacerbating the pain for CHF borrowers in the country. The fact that CHF strength shows no sign of letting up on the back of strong data and safe haven flows, the pain for these borrowers will only add to the problems for banks and borrowers alike in Europe.

AUD and NZD outperformance

Just as the euro looked as though it was showing some signs of rebounding following the battering it received in the wake of the downgrade of Greece’s credit ratings, S&P placed Spain on credit watch negative from neutral, which helped drag EUR/USD all the way down again. Expect more to come as sovereign risk concerns / fiscal deficit remain in focus. EUR/USD was helped by the usual sovereign demand, preventing a test of technical support around 1.4625 but another push lower is likely over the short term.

Despite a tough budget from Ireland yesterday, it alongside the likes of Latvia, Ireland, Hungary and Portugal will remain on the ratings agencies’ hit lists. Eurozone periphery bond spreads have widened sharply against bunds but even larger countries in Europe such as Italy have seen an increase in funding costs. Added to these concerns are the lingering uncertainties about Dubai as reflected in the continued rise in CDS.

In contrast, growth worries are receding quickly in Australia where another robust jobs report was released. Employment rose 31.2k in November, with an upward revision to the previous month, to 27.2k from 24.5k initially. The details looked good too, with much of the jobs increase coming from full time hires (30.8k). The jobless rate fell to 5.7% compared to 5.8% in October. Taken together with the hawkish slant to the RBNZ statement, the data will help keep the AUD and NZD resilient to any sell off in risk trades.

The decision by the RBNZ to leave interest rates unchanged at 2.5% came as no surprise. However, Governor Bollard did shift away from the earlier pledge not to hike interest rates until H2 10 and stated that a hike could come around the middle of 2010. The RBNZ also upgraded its growth forecasts. A rate hike could come even earlier in my view, a factor likely to keep the NZD well supported.

Markets will digest more interest rate decisions today, in the UK and Switzerland. No change is likely from both the BoE and SNB but the issue of QE will remain at the forefront, especially given the split decision by the BoE MPC at the last meeting. As for the SNB the usual concerns about CHF strength are likely to be expressed but the tone of the SNB’s comments are likely to remain dovish, expressing little urgency to begin implementing an exit strategy.

The US data slate is light but does include weekly jobless claims and October trade data. There will be more interest than usual on the claims data given the surprise in last week’s payrolls report. Claims have been on an improving trend declining at a more rapid pace than previous recessions and markets will eye the numbers to determine whether they point to further improvement in payrolls or whether they suggest the November data was merely an aberration.

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