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.

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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.

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.

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