Stagflation and Risk-Off Sentiment To Weigh on GBP

Today marks the sixth anniversary since the Brexit vote, which triggered a significant surge in uncertainty that has been weighing on the economic activity. UK switched from being the best-performing economy in 2014 among the G7 to one of the weakest-performing economies in recent years. The UK is expected to be the worst-performing economy next year among G20 (after Russia) following the recent significant downward revision by the OECD, from 2.1% to 0%.

Hence, the stagflationary environment should continue to weigh on the British pound, which remains ‘cheap’ but very risky. In addition, the risk off sentiment driven by the geopolitical uncertainty and the sharp tightening in financial conditions (surging ST rates) leave equities vulnerable in the near term, which could also impact Sterling quite significantly.

Historically, the pound has been the most sensitive currency to high-volatility regime; periods of sharp drawdowns in equity markets are generally associated with aggressive pound selloff. For instance, Cable plunged from 1.32 to a low of 1.1412 during the March 2020 market panic.

The chart below shows the strong co-movement between GBPUSD and EM equities in the past 6 years (since Brexit), and therefore further retracement in equities (amid lack of visibility and convictions) leaves Sterling vulnerable in the near term.

Figure 1: GBPUSD vs. EM Equities (source: Bloomberg)

Japanese Yen, ‘Cheapest’ Currency Among G10

Implied volatility on the Japanese yen has been surging in recent weeks following BoJ dovish comments last month. Not only the BoJ has not expressed any interest in normalizing its policy despite the surge in inflation globally, the central bank recently offered to buy an unlimited amount of 10Y JGBs at 0.25% to limit the upside retracement in LT bond yields. As a result, the strong divergence in monetary policy between BoJ and other DM central banks (particularly the Fed) has led to a significant rise in USDJPY.

USDJPY broke above its 125.80 resistance (the high reached in 2015) to reach a high at 129.37 on Tuesday, and is now the worst performing currency among the DM world, down over 10% against the greenback since the start of the year.

JPY is now the most undervalued currency among the G10 world, currently trading 21.3% below its ‘fundamental’ value, which is estimated based on a BEER FX model using the terms of trade, interest rate and inflation differentials as explanatory variables.

Even though the yen appears as a ‘cheap’ currency to buy at the moment, MP divergence could continue to weigh on JPY in the near term. In the past cycle, the last two bullish trends on USDJPY driven by strong MP divergence saw an upward retracement of 20 to 25 figures. Hence, USDJPY could increase to at least 135 (start of the trend at 115), which represents a strong resistance (135 was the high reached in February 2002).

Figure 1: G10 FX Spot Rates vs. ‘Fair’ Value

Source: Reuters, RR

AUD, GBP Most Undervalued In G10 World

In the past few months, the strong deceleration in the Chinese economic activity combined with the sharp contraction in ‘liquidity’ (Total Social Financing 12M Sum YoY change) have been weighing on the Aussie against major crosses. After peaking at 0.80 in February against the USD, the Aussie has been constantly testing new lows and is now down nearly 10% against the greenback.

AUD is now the most undervalued (-15%) currency among the G10 world according to our BEER model, which uses terms of trade, inflation and 10Y interest rate differentials as explanatory variables to compute the ‘fair’ value of currencies.

The second most undervalued currency is ‘risk-on’ GBP, standing at -13.2% from its ‘fair’ value. The rise in volatility combined with the deceleration in global liquidity have been weighing on Sterling in recent months.

On the other hand, the CHF is the most overvalued currencies against the USD (+7.7%) according to our BEER model, followed by the EUR (+3.8%). It is interesting to see that the Euro, which appears significantly undervalued from a PPP approach (PPP estimates the ‘fair’ value of EURUSD at 1.41 – implying that the EUR is over 18% undervalued), is now overvalued using a BEER approach.

Source: Bloomberg, RR calculations

Is The Selloff Coming On Sterling?

We know that Sterling has historically traded like a risk-on currency that tends to appreciate in periods of trending markets and consolidate sharply in high-volatility regime.

Figure 1 shows the monthly average performance of the most liquid currencies relative to the dollar when the VIX rises above 20 in the past 30 years. As expected, the yen is the currency that benefits the most when price volatility rises, averaging 45bps in monthly returns. On the other hand,  the pound has averaged -30bps in monthly returns when the VIX was high.

Figure 1

Source: Bloomberg, RR calculations

This was confirmed during the March 2020 panic as GBP was sold aggressively during that month with Cable reaching a low of 1.14 (down from 1.32 in early March) before starting to recover gradually (lowest level since 1985).

Figure 2 shows an interesting relationship between GBPUSD and mega-cap growth stocks since 2020 (FANG+ stocks); Sterling has significantly recovered in the past 17 months, up nearly 20% against the US Dollar. However, the momentum on Cable has halted in recent months as risky assets have shown some signs of ‘fatigue’ amid rising uncertainty over a range of risk factors (i.e. Delta variant, falling growth expectations…).

Figure 2

Source: Bloomberg

US Dollar seasonality: January is the strongest month

Despite the 13% fall since March, investors’ sentiment on the USD is still extremely negative for 2021. We previously argued that central banks (ex-Fed) will not let the greenback depreciate indefinitely as it will dramatically impact the economic ‘recovery’ (i.e. Euro area is very sensitive to a strong exchange rate) and weigh on long-term inflation expectations. In addition, figure 1 shows that a weaker US Dollar has coincided with a positive momentum in equities in recent years, especially since the February/March panic; therefore, being long US Dollar at current levels could offer investors a hedge against a sudden reversal in risky assets in the short term.

Source: Eikon Reuters

Another interesting observation comes out when we look at the seasonality of the USD in the past 50 years; while December tends to be the worst month on average for the greenback, January has historically been the best performing month with the Dollar averaging nearly 1% in monthly returns since January 1971.

Is it time for a ST bull retracement on the US Dollar?

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR calculations

FX Cross-Currency Basis Swaps and Hedging Costs

One interesting topic in the FX market that has been closely studied by both academics and practitioners over the past decade is the violation of the covered interest parity (CIP). CIP is a textbook no-arbitrage condition that states that interest rate differential between two currencies should equal the differential between the forward and spot exchange rates. In other words, in discrete time, we have the following condition:

Where S is the spot exchange rate, F is the forward exchange rate, i is the domestic interest rate and i* is the foreign currency interest rate. The problem is that the above equation has held since the Great Financial Crisis; as it started to become more expensive to borrow US Dollars against most currencies during periods of stress, the cross-currency basis swap (CCBS) has been diverging from zero for the Euro, the British pound and the Japanese Yen. Figure 1 (left frame) shows the evolution of the 3-month CCBS for the three currencies (against the USD) since 2012.

Low interest rates combined with the significant divergence in unconventional monetary policies run by the BoJ and ECB over the years has put pressure on the exchange rates and the CCBS, and therefore has increased the hedging costs for Euro and Japanese investors. The current rate on the US 10Y Treasuries (3.15%) looks certainly very interesting for unhedged international investors (relative to domestic bonds such as in the Euro area or Japan), however changes drastically when we adjust for hedging costs. Figure 2 represents the cash-flows that occur at the start, during the term and at maturity when a Euro investor (A) enters a cross currency basis swap. As you can see, each quarter A pays the 3M USD Libor and receives the 3M Euribor and the basis. Hence, the more negative is the basis, the higher the hedging cost. With the 3M Euribor at -0.316%, the 3M CCBS at -44bps and the 3M Libor USD at 2.61%, the current return on a FX-hedged 10Y US Treasuries is negative (-20bps). Figure 1 (right frame) shows that despite the rise in US yields since the middle 2016, it has been falling for Euro and JPY investors after adjusting for FX hedging costs. A UK investor would get an annual return of 1.35%, which is 15bps below he can get in holding a 10Y Gilt.

Figure 1

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Source: Eikon Reuters

 

Figure 2

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Source: BIS