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USD up as stocks fall after Fed Powell testimony. GBP nervous ahead of EU Brexit draft proposals.

By Nick Parsons

The GBP had another lurch lower on Tuesday morning as the implications of Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit speech began to be more widely recognized. However, by the end of the European day, even though the GBP/USD rate was still down more than half a cent, the pound had recovered against most of the other currencies where long positions versus the US Dollar were being liquidated. EUR/USD fell to its lowest level in 2½ weeks, for example, whilst AUD/USD threatened to break below 78 cents. Overnight in Asia, the pound has edged a little lower and is back down in the high 1.38’s against the US Dollar.

The Brexit negotiations are the gift that keeps on giving for political sketch-writers but for businesses and investors the constant twists and turns in the plot are nothing but a major headache. UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was yesterday forced to launch a defence of the government’s Brexit trade policy after a former top official in his department dismissed it as the tactics of “a fairy godmother”. In a day of mixed metaphors, Sir Martin Donnelly - who was Dr Fox’s permanent secretary until last year - told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “You’re giving up a three-course meal, which is the depth and intensity of our trade relationships across the European Union and partners now, for the promise of a packet of crisps in the future if we manage to do trade deals outside the European Union which aren’t going to compensate for what we’re giving up.”

Today, the European Commission is set to publish a detailed draft withdrawal and transition agreement which is said to have more than 120 pages made up of 168 treaty articles and two protocols setting out the EU’s terms for Brexit to be negotiated over the next seven months. Well-sourced leaks suggest it will trigger a new row by designating “the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the authority for the interpretation and enforcement of the withdrawal agreement”. The Prime Minister’s office is already briefing that she will not sign up to “anything that threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK”, and so another tricky day lies ahead for the pound.

The big highlight of the day on Tuesday was new Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s first Congressional monetary policy testimony. Ahead of this, both stock index futures and the US Dollar traded pretty flat with the DJIA around 26,700 and the USD index at 89.60. The testimony was a two-stage process with the text released around 08.30 Washington time but the hearing not beginning until 10.00am. In many ways, the market reaction was similarly two-staged: stocks and bonds initially decided there was nothing fresh at all in the prepared remarks but by the end of the testimony, markets had decided Mr Powell’s comments were a bit more hawkish. The USD index hit 90 for the first time in 2-weeks whilst 10-year bond yields backed up to 2.92% and the DJIA closed down more than 200 points.

Mr Powell said that, “While many factors shape the economic outlook, some of the headwinds the US economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds: In particular, fiscal policy has become more stimulative and foreign demand for US exports is on a firmer trajectory. Despite the recent volatility, financial conditions remain accommodative. At the same time inflation remains below our 2 per cent longer-run objective [although] some of the shortfall in inflation last year likely reflects transitory influences that we do not expect will be repeated. Consistent with this view, some of the monthly readings were a little higher toward the end of the year than in earlier months… The FOMC will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheated economy and bringing PCE price inflation to 2 per cent on a sustained basis.”

Though rising long-term interest rates and recent equity market volatility have tightened financial conditions, Powell said, “we do not see these developments as weighing heavily on the outlook for economic activity, the labor market and inflation.” Rather, “the robust job market should continue to support growth in household incomes and consumer spending, solid economic growth among our trading partners should lead to further gains in U.S. exports, and upbeat business sentiment and strong sales growth will likely continue to boost business investment.” By the end of his Congressional appearance, 2-year yields had risen 5bp to 2.27% whilst the number of implied rate hikes this year had risen from 2.8 to 2.9. The USD index opens this morning in Europe around 90.00

The euro yesterday initially retraced much, but not all of Monday’s losses and couldn’t get back to the USD1.2350 high, failing around 10 pips below this level in the European morning. By the end of the day, however, it had fallen more than a full cent to a low of 1.2230 as the contrast between ECB and Fed monetary policy paths in 2017 was made clear. We said here yesterday that, “Mr. Draghi has often shown himself to be a master of market expectations… and he might well be actively trying to push the EUR lower ahead of the ECB meeting.” If he was, he’d certainly be happy with yesterday’s price action and an overnight session in Asia which has so far brought no bounce off the lows.

The main contender for Mr Draghi’s job once his term of office ends is Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann. Speaking in Frankfurt yesterday morning, he said that, “I believe it is important to gradually and dependably reduce the degree of monetary policy accommodation when the outlook for price developments in the euro area permits us to do so. If the upswing continues and prices rise accordingly, in my view, there is no reason why the Governing Council should not end the net purchases of securities this year… One thing seems clear to me: monetary normalization in the euro area will take a long time. Monetary policy will remain very expansive even after the end of net bond purchases.”

Ahead of today’s Eurozone CPI figures, German inflation slowed more than expected to hit a 15-month low in February. Harmonised CPI rose by just 1.2% year-on-year after an increase of 1.4% in the previous month, the data showed. That was weaker than the 1.3 percent consensus estimate, the lowest reading since November 2016 and marked the third consecutive fall in the headline figure. The consensus on Eurozone inflation is for the annual rate to edge down to 1.2% in February from 1.3% in January. The EUR opens in London this morning at USD1.22 and GBP/EUR1.13.

From Monday’s high of USD0.7885 - its highest since last Tuesday – the Aussie Dollar has spent the last 48 hours moving lower, with the move accelerating in North America on Tuesday on a combination of stronger USD, much lower gold prices and a pick-up in volatility which has seen the VIX index more than a point higher at 17.6. The AUD/USD pair held on to a 78 cents big figure until lunchtime in New York but overnight in Asia has moved to test technical support from last week’s low around 0.7790.

According to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics earlier today, the value of credit extended to Australia’s private sector grew by just0.3% in January. Over the year, total credit grew by 4.9%, the equal-lowest increase since May 2014. The details of the report showed it was yet again housing credit that drove the increase. It rose by 0.5% in seasonally adjusted terms, up from 0.4% in December, leaving the increase on a year earlier at 6.2%. Despite the small pick-up, the annual rate was still the weakest since May 2014. Credit extended to business fell by 0.1%, the first decline since February last year whilst personal credit rose just 0.1% with an annual rate of -0.9%.

We’ve been highlighting the lack of consensus on Australian interest rates from the ‘Big Four’ banks locally. The divergence has narrowed somewhat overnight as NAB have revised their outlook. They wrote that, “Weak wages growth and slow progress reducing unemployment means it is now less likely that the RBA will raise rates twice in 2018. We now see the RBA raising rates only once in late 2018 – with November 2018 as the most likely start date for a gradual RBA rate hiking cycle… By late 2018, growth should be near 3% and the unemployment rate approaching 5%. That, together with increasing tightness in employers’ ability to find suitable labour, may finally see private sector wages start to moderately edge up.” Over at Westpac, meantime, the team has re-iterated its view of a considerable widening in the US / Australia interest rate differential as the RBA remains on hold. Markets are currently pricing in a yield differential between US and Australian overnight rates of negative 45 basis points by end 2018 whereas Westpac expects minus 63 basis points. Markets are expecting a differential of minus 42 basis points compared to Westpac’s forecast of minus 112 basis points by end 2019. The Australian Dollar opens this morning in the high USD77’s with GBP/AUD at 1.78. .

Ahead of the Federal Budget, the Canadian Dollar had another poor day on Tuesday, kept off bottom spot in our one-day performance table only by the weakness of the NZD. As the US Dollar caught a bid on rising money market rates and higher bond yields, USD/CAD moved up through Monday’s high and on to a best level of 1.2755; a fresh high for 2018 and the highest since December 22nd. Overnight in Asia the pair has extended the move by a further 20 pips but has so far stopped short of moving on to a 1.28 ‘big figure’.

The Canadian government last night released its 2018-19 budget Tuesday in Ottawa, with a fiscal track largely in line with what Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau forecast in his last fiscal update in October. One major change is C$7.2 billion less infrastructure spending through 2019, an amount that has been allocated to other departmental spending, largely for veterans, indigenous Canadians, women and research. The economy is forecast to average growth of 2 percent between 2017 and 2022, including a 3 percent expansion in 2017 whilst forecasts for debt and the deficit are overall little changed from October’s fiscal update with deficits over the six years including 2017-18 projected to total C$98 billion. The ratio of debt to gross domestic product will drop to 28.4 percent by 2022 from 30.4 percent in 2017-18.

A day after the latest round of NAFTA negotiations began in in Mexico City, US President Donald Trump told a meeting of governors at the White House that when it comes to trade, Canada is "very smooth…. We lose a lot with Canada. People don't know it. They have you believe that it's wonderful, and it is - for them. Not wonderful for us, it's wonderful for them." An eighth round of talks is already planned in Washington next month but any statement the President makes at the moment serves only to increase nervousness for the Canadian Dollar which opens in Europe this morning with USD/CAD in the high 1.27’s and GBP/CAD in the mid-1.77’s.

Over the past three trading days, the New Zealand has finished top, bottom and bottom of our one-day performance table. Yesterday, after a worse than expected set of merchandise trade figures, NZD/USD was back on a US 72 cents ‘big figure’ and a break down through technical support in the 0.7275-80 area, has seen the Kiwi extend the its weakness in the overnight session in Asia.

ANZ’s monthly business outlook is published today. A net 19% of businesses are pessimistic about the year ahead, versus 38% in December. All five sectors improved this month with retail firms the closest to a positive outlook at -4%. Firms’ views of their own activity (which has the stronger correlation with GDP growth), lifted from +16 to +20. The analysts note, “A slower housing market, a small dip in net migration, difficulty finding credit and already stretched construction and tourism sectors are making acceleration hard work from here. But strong terms of trade and a positive outlook for wage growth are providing a push… Our composite growth indicator, which combines business and consumer confidence, suggests growth around 2-3%. Although we are constructive on the medium-term outlook (with incomes supported by the strong terms of trade and higher wage growth), we are conservative in our productivity growth assumptions and believe households need to rebuild their saving. We accordingly see downside risk to both the Reserve Bank’s and Treasury’s growth forecasts”.

Separate figures show New Zealand's visitor arrivals dropped for the first time in five years in January as fewer Chinese tourists visited the country, although though statistics officials said that was largely due to the timing of Chinese New Year, which this year fell in February. The country's annual net migration also eased off recent highs as government regulations introduced in the middle of last year came into force. On an annual basis net migration was 70,100, down from a record high of 72,400 in July. However on a monthly basis, the country posed a net gain of 6,210 permanent and long-term migrants in January compared to 5,780 the previous month. Statistics New Zealand said there had been a dip in migrant arrivals on student visas from India and China, New Zealand's two largest education markets, down around 8 per cent to 11,100. The overall number of migrants arriving on student visas was 24,100 in the year to January 31, 2018, down just 150 from the preceding 12 months. The Kiwi Dollar opens in London in the mid-USD 72’s and GBP/NZD1.92.