Strong US Jobs Data And Hawkish Fed Speak Keeps Tightening Expectations Elevated

US bond yields rose sharply on Friday, particularly on the front end of the curve in the wake of the above consensus US July jobs report, which showed a strong 528,000 (consensus 250,000) increase in non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate dropping to 3.5% (consensus 3.6%).  The three-month moving average of US jobs gains now total 437,000. However, the drop in the unemployment rate was due in part to a drop in the participation rate so it wasn’t all good news.  Wage growth was firm, with average hourly earnings up 5.2% y/y. Overall the data highlighted a still strong jobs market and markets are now pricing in a greater probability of 75 basis points hike by the Federal Reserve at its September meeting. 

The firm US jobs data accompanied hawkish Fed speak over the past week, with various Fed officials pushing back against more dovish rate expectations that had been built into markets over recent weeks. The Fed’s Evans, Kashkari and Daly are scheduled to speak this week and are likely to maintain the run of hawkish Fed comments, pushing back against residual expectation of an early peak in the Fed Funds rate. Despite weaker closes for equities on Friday, stocks still ended higher over the week, but may struggle given the renewed hawkish shift in rate expectations.  That said, with the bulk of second quarter earnings out of the way equities have held up well. 

The data and Fed speakers also give further reason to be cautious on extrapolating the recent pull back in the US dollar, with the currency bouncing at the end of the week and starting this week on a firm note.  The USD index has bounced off trend line support and has bounced off its 50-day moving average level, which has been a good support over recent months.  In the near term some consolidation in the USD is likely though this week’s US CPI inflation report is likely to provide more direction.  Conversely, while the euro appears to have found a short-term bottom, it’s hard to see a significant bounce in the currency. 

Data over the weekend revealed a stronger than expected increase in Chinese exports in July at 18% y/y (cons. 14.1%) and lower imports at 2.3% y/y (cons. 4.0%), resulting in a surge in the trade surplus to $101.26bn (cons. $89.04bn).  The weak imports data highlights ongoing pressure on domestic demand while exports will likely struggle to maintain firm momentum amid a likely slowing in external demand.  China’s July inflation data this will be in focus (Wed) this week while more reaction by China to last week’s visit by Speaker to Pelosi to Taiwan will also be expected. 

In the US, the key data will be the July CPI report (Wed); the consensus expects elevated readings of 8.7%/6.1% y/y for total/core prices.  Headline CPI will have moderated from June, but core CPI is likely to have ticked higher.  Long term inflation expectations as measured in the University of Michigan August confidence survey (Fri) will also be in focus.  On the policy rate front, a 25bp hike from the Bank of Thailand kicks of its tightening cycle (Wed) and a 75bp hike from Mexico’s central bank, Banxico.  However, unlike Thailand Banxico is likely nearing the end of its tightening cycle.   

Going “The Extra Mile”

Risk assets ended last week on a soft note as Brexit uncertainties intensified amid a lack of progress towards a transition deal.  However, news overnight was a little more promising, as PM Johnson and EC President von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” to try to agree up on a deal.  “Incremental” progress has reportedly been made and talks could now continue up to Christmas.  Sterling (GBP) rallied on the news and further gains are likely on any deal.  However, gains may prove short lived, with markets likely to focus on the economic difficulties ahead of the UK economy.  A no deal outcome is likely to result in a much sharper decline in GBP, however.

Progress towards fresh US fiscal stimulus progress faltered leaving US equity markets on shaky ground.  As it is, US stocks have struggled to extend gains over December after a stellar month in November and in recent days momentum has faded further.  Last week 9 out of 11 S&P sectors fell, suggesting broad based pressure.  Whether it is just a case of exhaustion/profit taking after solid year-to-date gains – for example, Nasdaq is up almost 38% and S&P up 13.4%, ytd – or something more alarming is debatable.  The massive amount of liquidity sloshing around and likely more dovishness from the Fed this week, would suggest the former.  

At the same time the US dollar (DXY) and broader BDXY are down almost 6% and 5% respectively, this year and most forecasts including our own look for more USD weakness next year.  Some of this is likely priced in as reflected in 27 straight weeks of negative aggregate USD (vs major currencies) positioning as a % of open interest (CFTC). The USD looks a little firmer this month, but gains are tentative and like equities this could simply reflect profit taking.  For example, in Asian currencies that have performed well this year such as the offshore Chinese yuan (CNH) and Korean won (KRW), fell most last week, partly due to increased central bank resistance. 

This week is a heavy one for events and data.  The main event on the calendar is the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed).  The Fed could include new forward guidance stating that quantitative easing (QE) will continue until there is clear-cut progress toward the employment and inflation goals.  The Fed may also lengthen the average maturity of asset purchases. Central bank decisions in Hungary (Tue), UK, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines (all on Thu), Russia, Japan and Mexico (all on Fri) will also be in focus though no changes in policy are likely from any of them.   On the data front China activity data (Tue), Canada CPI (Wed), US retail sales (Wed), and Australian employment (Thu) will be main highlights.

Asian currencies vulnerable to equity outflows

Asian currencies are set to continue to trade cautiously. One big headwind to further appreciation is the fact that there has been a substantial outlook of equity capital over recent weeks. Over the last month to date Asian equity markets have registered an outflow of $3.3 billion in outflows. However, whilst Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and India have seen outflows Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam have registered inflows.

The net result is that equity capital inflows to Asia so far this year are almost flat, a stark contrast from 2009 and 2010 when inflows were much higher at the same point in the year. The odds for further strong inflows do not look good, especially as the Fed ends QE2 by the end of June. While a sharp reversal in capital flows is unlikely, it also seems unlikely that Asia will register anywhere near as strong inflows as the last couple of years.

This will have a significant impact on Asian currencies, whose performance mirrors capital flows into the region. Almost all Asian currencies have dropped against the USD so far this month and could remain vulnerable if outflows continue. Given the relative stability of the USD over recent weeks and imminent end to QE2, the better way to play long Asia FX is very much against the increasingly vulnerable EUR.

The THB has been the worst performing currency this month but its weakness has been attributable to upcoming elections on July 3, which has kept foreign investor sentiment cautious. Thailand has seen an outflow of $812mn from its equity market this month. Polls show the PM Abhisit’s party trailing the opposition and nervousness is likely to persist up to the elections at least. THB weakness is not likely to persist over coming months, with USD/THB forecast at 29.2 by year end.

USD/KRW has been whipsawed over the past week but made up ground despite a continued outflow of equity capital over recent days. KRW has been particularly resilient despite a firmer USD environment and a drop in consumer sentiment in June. Next week the KRW will likely continue to trade positively, helped by a likely firm reading for May industrial production on Thursday. USD/KRW is set to trade in a 1070-1090 range, with direction likely to come from Greece’s parliament vote on its austerity measures.

TWD has traded weaker in June, having been one of the worst performing currencies over the month. USD/TWD does not have a particularly strongly correlation with movements in the USD or risk aversion at present but the currency has suffered from a very sharp outflow of equity capital over recent weeks (biggest outflow out of all Asian countries so far this month). Next week’s interest rate decision on Thursday by the central bank (CBC) will give some direction to the TWD but a 12.5bps increase in policy rates should not come as a big surprise. TWD is likely to trade with a weaker bias but its losses are likely to be capped around the 29.00 level versus USD.

GBP troubles, KRW too weak

The Fed FOMC minutes for the January meeting revealed that behind the unanimous vote to leave policy settings unchanged there was some unease about the completion of QE2. Nonetheless, the USD was left weaker given the Fed’s sanguine view on inflation and worries about unemployment. Inflation data will garner most market attention today but the fact that the core rate of CPI inflation is expected to remain well below the Fed’s preferred level could undermine the USD and add a further barrier to the USD’s recovery so far in February. Jobless claims data will also be of interest given the sharp drop last week. Another firm outcome will help to dispel worries about job market recovery.

As warned in my last post, downside risks to GBP were high given the long GBP speculative positioning overhang and hawkish expectations for the BoE Quarterly Inflation Report. In the event the Report revealed a downward growth forecast revision and an upward inflation forecast revision but importantly showed some reluctance to play into market expectations of an early UK policy rate hike. Following on from a weaker than expected UK January jobs report in which unemployment increased, GBP was hit on both counts. GBP/USD is unlikely to veer far from the 1.6000 level, but with markets reassessing interest rate expectations downside risks are beginning to open up.

News yesterday that Moody’s ratings agency has placed Australia and New Zealand’s major banks on review for possible downgrades went down like a lead balloon but once again AUD and NZD showed their usual resilience and acted as if little has happened. AUD and NZD have weakened since the turn of the year. Weaker data and a paring back in policy tightening expectations have contributed to the weaker performance of the AUD and NZD, but markets have gone too far in scaling back the timing and magnitude of interest rate hikes, suggesting that both currencies may bounce back as interest rate expectations become more hawkish.

Asian currencies continue to register mixed performances largely influenced by capital flows. Most equity markets in the region have registered outflows so far in 2011, with the exception of Taiwan and Vietnam. This has been reflected in Asian FX performance, with the strongest performer being the IDR, but its gains have only been around 0.72% versus USD, coinciding with the fact that it has registered some of the least capital outflows this year. Interestingly the worst performing currency has been the THB, one of last year’s star performers. Korea has also registered strong equity capital outflows but this will not persist and a resumption of inflows taken together with positive fundamentals and higher interest rates will boost the KRW this year.

Asian Currency Differentiation

Asian currencies have started the year in mixed form, but it would be wrong to generalize the performance of Asian currencies as weak. There have been marginal gains recorded year to date vs. USD in the KRW, TWD, MYR and SGD, reflecting strong capital equity inflows. This contrasts with losses in the IDR, INR, PHP and THB versus USD. Compared to the beginning of 2010 equity capital flows have been far weaker overall, with India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, recording outflows, matching the performance of their currencies.

Clearly investors are discriminating more at the turn of 2011. For example Taiwan has recorded solid equity inflows over recent weeks (over $2 billion year-to-date), matching the strength of inflows registered at the beginning of 2010. It appears that Taiwan stocks have started the year as the Asian favorite, helped by growing expectations of further door opening to mainland investment and tourism. Korean equities have also registered inflows helping to support the KRW, which looks to be good buy over the short term above 1120.

This contrast with outflows registered in other Asian equity markets. A major concern responsible for some of the weakness in capital flows to Asia is the threat of inflation. For example, the selling of stocks in India appears to be closely related to inflation concerns and the hawkish rhetoric of the Reserve Bank of India, which is continuing its tightening path this year. Similarly, the PHP may be vulnerable over the short term following a failed T-bill auction on Monday. Inflation worries have clearly led to a push for higher yields but the bids were labeled as “unreasonable” by the government.

Over coming weeks, further EUR strength will likely give Asian currencies more support as the USD succumbs to further pressure. Continued strengthening in the CNY will also support other Asian currencies given that the CNY fixing has reached its highest level since the July 2005 revaluation.

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