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China PMI Surveys, Q4 capex are important for AUD, but Fed Chair Powell’s testimony on Tuesday could be key to financial markets

By Nick Parsons

The Australian Dollar moved lower last week, in part due to early weakness in global stock markets, in part due to higher volatility across asset classes and in part also to incoming news on the RBA and wage costs. Overall, the AUD began the week at USD0.7910 and moved lower almost without interruption to 0.7790 on Thursday morning in Sydney. A subsequent rally as stock markets jumped took the pair up to 0.7855 but it then slipped steadily through the Northern Hemisphere on Friday to end the week around 0.7840.

The wide split of views on the Australian Dollar is well-illustrated by a Google search. The top four articles on the news function are headed ‘Australian Dollar is a sell but a risky one’, ‘Australian Dollar is on the ropes but can still triumph in 2018’, ‘Buying Australian Dollars an attractive way to bet against US Dollar’ and ‘Australian Dollar likely to be pulled one way by China, another by US’. That selection of headlines pretty much covers all bases; the AUD is either going up, or down, or both at the same time!

For the week ahead, and away from the obvious influence of ever-volatile stock markets, the two main drivers for the AUD are likely to be domestic economic news flow and China’s PMI figures. There have been some signs of hardening in China’s attitude to credit creation and its currency has been allowed to appreciate against the US Dollar. On Wednesday and Thursday, we get the official and private sector PMI survey numbers which will be watched closely for any signs of slowdown; albeit against a backdrop of continued global strength. At home, Thursday brings the two Australian manufacturing PMI surveys and the Q4 Private Capital Expenditure numbers which will feed directly into the following week’s GDP estimate. The Australian Dollar opens in Asia this morning having closed on Friday evening in New York at USD0.7840, with AUD/NZD at 1.0740 and GBP/AUD1.7820.

After a brief period last Monday on US 74 cents, the New Zealand Dollar spent much of last week on a US 73 cents ‘big figure’; until Friday morning when it broke down into the high 72’s. Though the story of NZD/USD was a steady decline (other than the Wednesday night spike higher which all the other FX majors enjoyed against the USD) the main action was on the AUD/NZD cross which fell on Thursday to a fresh 6-month low of 1.0655; the lowest since August 4th last year. By Friday, however, a sharp reversal higher took the pair back to 1.0740 to leave it within a few pips of its starting point on Monday morning and left the NZD the worst performer on the day even as the locals had gone home and were already starting the weekend.

It was a slow week of mostly second-tier data, though things potentially look a bit more interesting in the week ahead. Monthly trade figures are released on Tuesday and on Wednesday it’s the always-fascinating international travel and migration statistics. Also on Wednesday, the ANZ business survey will show if business confidence has picked up from the year-end slump which took the headline number down to -37.8 in December. They are not a market mover, but your author always enjoys the colour and detail provided by the international visitor arrivals figures which are out on Friday; so important for all those whose livelihoods depend on tourism and discretionary spending from overseas.

Speaking of overseas visitors, it has been announced that former US president Barack Obama is to visit New Zealand for the first time next month. Obama will speak to about 1000 invited guests at an event run by the NZ-US Council in Auckland on March 22, spending about three days in the country, before going on to Sydney. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed confirmation of the trip. "I look forward to welcoming Mr Obama to our country and anticipate meeting him once his full programme is finalised," she said in a statement. The New Zealand Dollar opens in Asia this morning having ended last week at USD0.7290 and AUD/NZD1.0740.

The GBP ended the week lower against the USD and twice finished at the bottom of our one-day performance tables. The low point came on Thursday morning London time around 1.3875 and though it recovered on Friday, GBP/USD could not get back on to a 1.40 ‘big figure’. As the fortunes of the GBP are just as closely linked to Brexit as to incoming economic data, the intra-day swings in the British Pound are something that businesses and investors are unfortunately going to have to live with for some time to come.

In economic news, UK growth in the fourth quarter of last year was last week revised down to 0.4%, from an initial estimate of 0.5% whilst annual growth for 2017 as a whole is down from 1.8% to 1.7%. It means the UK is at the bottom of the G7 pack with average growth in 2017, back below Japan and Italy (Canada doesn’t report Q4 figures until March 2nd). Despite the softness of incoming data, policymakers are still talking up the prospect of further rate hikes. An interview in the Sunday Times reveals that the newest MPC member, Terry Ramsden, who was one of the two doves to vote against a rate hike in November, has now changed his mind. “There does seem to me more impetus on wages. We all will keep a close eye on what happens through the early part of this year to see if that forecast [in a Bank survey] of wage growth picking up to 3% is realised. But certainly relative to where I was, I see the case for rates rising somewhat sooner rather than somewhat later… “The economy has a lower speed limit than it did. We already had a productivity growth puzzle, but Brexit has reinforced things.”

On the never-ending Brexit saga, Prime Minister Theresa May issued a weekend statement saying, “Delivering the best Brexit is about our national future, part of the way we improve the lives of people all over the country. The decisions we make now will shape this country for a generation. If we get them right, Brexit will be the beginning of a bright new chapter in our national story.” She will hold a special cabinet meeting on Thursday to get sign off on the plans discussed at last week’s ‘offsite’ before a speech publicly setting out her position on Friday, expected to be in Newcastle. For all the brave and upbeat talk, it is clear to everyone that the real decisions on Brexit are going to be made in Brussels. European Council President Donald Tusk spoke about 'Brexit' in talks with media on Saturday. He warned the British government that Brussels would not accept what he views as cherry picking. "If the media reports are correct, I am afraid the UK position today is based on pure illusion." The pound opens in Asia this morning after ending last week at USD1.3970, GBP/AUD1.7815 and GBP/NZD1.9155.

For most of last week, the US Dollar’s fortunes largely mirrored those of the main US equity indices. At times when stock markets were rallying, the USD had an observable tendency to sell-off, whilst any sign of stress in equities had the opposite effect, leading to something of a safe-haven bid. The 2018 low point for the USD index came back on Friday February 16th at 87.95. As the stock market sold-off on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday last week – culminating in a sharp dive lower after the FOMC Minutes – so the USD index rose to a best level for the week of 89.85; a 10-day high. On Thursday, stocks recovered and the USD fell (no surprise there) but on Friday the inverse relationship seemed to break down somewhat. Equity index futures were up almost the whole day but the USD was little moved, ending the week only a down three or four-tenths from Thursday’s best level.

There had been some talk that the Minutes of the January 31st FOMC meeting might be used to steer the market towards expecting four rate hikes this year, rather than the median of three which had been signaled in the December ‘dot-points’ and the 2.82 hikes which were reflected in market interest rate pricing. That didn’t really happen, even though stock markets at that point back in January hadn’t yet started the dramatic decline which began after the labour market and average earnings numbers on Friday February 2nd. Of course, we now have a new Fed Chairman and this week will be his first semi-annual monetary policy testimony to Congress. Most of the published calendars for this week will show this being on Wednesday but it has in fact been moved forwards 24 hours to 10am Tuesday, apparently because the casket of preacher Billy Graham will be lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda for two days from February 28th; only the fourth ever private citizen to do so.

As well as Jerome Powell’s testimony, there is a raft of US economic data scheduled for release this week, although the first Friday of the month of March won’t bring the payroll numbers due to the Presidents Day holiday late in the already-short month of February. Tuesday brings wholesale inventories, the advanced goods trade balance, durable goods, and consumer confidence; the first three of which will all feed directly into the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model. Wednesday is the Chicago NAPM and existing home sales, whilst Thursday brings the personal income, expenditure and deflators as well as the ISM manufacturing survey. There’s scope for plenty of volatility around each of the data prints, though the tone and content of Mr Powell’s remarks will be key ahead of the March 22nd FOMC meeting. The USD index opens this morning in Asia having closed at 89.50; more than 1½ points up from its 2018 low.

The euro had a poor week. Its 2018 high of USD1.2550 came back on Thursday February 15th. The EUR opened last Monday morning already almost 1½ cents down from this level at 1.2410 and by Thursday morning it had fallen all the way down to 1.2265; the lowest in almost 10-days. In part, this was driven by a weaker US stock market which boosted the US Dollar, but it was also the first week of the year in which Eurozone economic data were by quite a margin softer than consensus expectations.

The ZEW survey of the current economic situation in the eurozone’s largest economy slipped more than expected in February to 92.3. The headline Markit Eurozone PMI fell from 58.8 in January to 57.5, according to the flash estimate, which is based on approximately 85% of usual final replies. Markit noted that, “By country, growth in Germany came in at a three-month low, while in France the composite PMI moderated to the weakest for four months. Completing a trifecta of disappointing numbers, the ifo reported, “Germany’s very favourable business climate cooled down considerably this month. The ifo Business Climate Index fell to 115.4 points in February from 117.6 points in January. After the euphoria of recent months, companies’ assessments of the business outlook for the months ahead were also far less optimistic. In manufacturing the index fell considerably from last month’s record high”.

It’s only a few days since we had the final Eurozone CPI numbers for January and after the shortest month of the year it’s already time for the ‘flash estimate’ for February which will be published on Wednesday. The final PMI numbers are out on Thursday, when we’ll also see all the Eurozone countries which are not covered in the mid-month flash. Before then, Bundesbank President Jens Wiedmann will be presenting the institution’s annual report. A fascinating account of a wide-ranging lunch with Mr Weidmann and the FT’s Frankfurt bureau chief was published in this weekend’s Financial Times. Its author, Claire Jones, reported, “Weidmann contents himself with offering lukewarm praise for Draghi, while echoing a view I have heard on countless occasions in Germany that the ECB has done too much to bail out weaker members of the eurozone. “The ECB [is] certainly an institution that functions well,” he says. “But this cannot be an argument for us to take over the role . . . of governments.” The EUR opens in Asia this morning having ended the week at USD1.2295, AUD/EUR0.6375 and NZD/EUR0.5930.

The Canadian Dollar didn’t have a great week, though it was rescued to some extent by stronger than expected inflation numbers in the very last trading session of the week on Friday. USD/CAD opened on Monday morning at 1.2560 and after a very brief dip lower in the Asia time zone that day (in line with all the non-USD FX majors) it moved all the way up to a high of 1.2745 in North America on Thursday; a new high for 2018 and the highest level since December 26th last year. On Friday the CAD rallied back onto 1.26 and ended the week around 1.2630, having at one point come within a quarter of a cent of parity against the Aussie Dollar.

On Friday, the annual inflation rate was reported at 1.7% in January, down from 1.9% in December but above consensus forecasts for 1.4%. The Bank of Canada’s three measures of core inflation were less muted, with CPI common, which the central bank says is the best gauge of inflation, rising to 1.8%, the highest since April 2012. Transportation costs rose 3.2% from a year ago, moderating from the previous month’s pace as price gains for gasoline and autos decelerated. But food prices were up 2.3%, the largest gain since April 2016, as Canadians paid more for food at restaurants as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. Interest rate markets expect the BoC to make no change at its next policymaking meeting in March but another rate hike is fully priced in by July.

The seventh round of talks on NAFTA renegotiation begins in Mexico City. According to Reuters, talks are running behind schedule although some officials believe the longer they last, the less likely it is that Trump will dump NAFTA, which he has threatened to do if the overhaul of the accord does not benefit the United States. Negotiators had wanted to wrap up talks by March to avoid them being politicised by Mexico’s July presidential election. But officials have already raised the possibility that they will run past Mexico’s vote, and some say they could continue at a technical level for several months if necessary. A US official noted, “there has never been a hard deadline”, and among Mexicans following the process, belief is growing that lobbying efforts by US business leaders and politicians to preserve NAFTA has been gaining traction. Back home in Canada on Tuesday afternoon, Finance Minister Bill Morneau will table his government’s third federal budget in the House of Commons. The Canadian Dollar opens in Asia this morning, having closed in North America on Friday at USD/CAD1.2630, AUD/CAD0.9905 and GBP/CAD1.7650.