Reserve Bank's eyes on a strong US dollar: Bill Evans

Reserve Bank's eyes on a strong US dollar: Bill Evans
Reserve Bank's eyes on a strong US dollar: Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

Our September target for AUD/USD had been 73¢ since we last adjusted our forecasts back in April. At the time the AUD was trading around 79¢. Our year-end target at that time was 72¢, implying a reasonably sized fall through the middle of the year and stability (with downside risk) beyond.

With our September target now achieved, we have decided to lower our year-end target by 2¢ to 70¢ to reflect lower forecasts for global growth and commodity prices and our assessment that markets are largely in denial that the US Federal Reserve is likely to begin raising interest rates in September with a follow up move in December.

When we adopted the end year-end target of 72¢ in April, our contemporaneous estimate of fair value was around 74¢ compared to an actual of 79¢ - a premium of 5¢. (The AUD has traded at a consistent margin above fair value through most of its depreciation in recent years.) At that time our projection of fair value by year end was 69¢, based on our forecasts for commodity prices, interest rate differentials and Australia’s net foreign debt – the key drivers of fair value.

We have recently revised down our outlook for commodity prices and we have also increased our projected net foreign debt, both of which lower fair value. The net effect has subtracted 3¢ from our prior figure, leaving our fair value projection for the end of the year at 66¢.

On the commodity front, in April, when we forecast AUD/USD to reach 72¢ by year’s end we expected the Australian commodities index to reach 188. That has now been revised down to 165 (–12%), with the bulk commodity component forecast falling from 227 to 203 (–11%).

A significant explanation for this downward revision has been our lower forecast for global growth in both 2015 and 2016. The 2015 forecast has been reduced from 3.5% in April to 3.2% and the 2016 forecast has been reduced from 4.1% to 3.6%. Downward adjustments to the growth outlook in the US, China and East Asia have been largely responsible for these changes.

A potential supporting factor for the AUD has been our expectation that market pricing, which had been giving a 60-80% probability of a rate cut by the RBA by year’s end would prove to be unfounded. Recently the market has moved to lower that probability as the Bank appeared to be less committed to a lower exchange rate. The Governor’s statement following the August board meeting omitted the key sentiment around “further depreciation”. 

Prior to August the Bank had been quite successful in assisting the fall in the AUD from 79¢ to 73¢ with a consistent commentary that “further depreciation seems both likely and necessary”. In the August statement the Governor merely noted that the AUD had been adjusting, arguably implying that he was satisfied with its current level.

Pressure for further rate cuts accordingly eased and the currency rebounded almost a cent from its lows, before settling around 73.5¢. This uplift, which was clearly associated with the market’s revision to the outlook for the RBA appears to have now largely run its course.

Moving on to the other major factor at play, the market remains in denial that the Federal Reserve is likely to decide to raise its policy rate at the September 16/17 meeting. Current market pricing is only giving around a 25% probability to a Fed rate hike in September and an 80% probability of one hike by December. We expect hikes in both September and December – events that are likely to give a solid boost to the USD as markets adjust to the “surprise”.

This adjustment is likely to further weigh on high yield currencies such as the AUD as markets begin to alter their expectations about the pace of the narrowing of the interest rate differential between Australia and the US. For example, further out along the curve markets are currently expecting slightly less than three rate hikes by the Fed by the end of 2016. After moves in both September and December markets are likely to scramble to price in at least two more hikes by end 2016, further pressuring the Australian dollar.

We suspect that the potential for this sort of scenario to play out may be influencing the tactical thinking of the RBA. The Bank would see a strengthening of the US dollar as a beneficial trend which would allow for a lower Australian dollar without the need for additional interest rate cuts.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac.

 

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Interest Rates

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