By Liz Capo McCormick
May 12 (Bloomberg) -- For the first time since December 2005, futures traders are turning bullish on the dollar.
The difference in the number of wagers by hedge funds and other large speculators on a gain in the greenback versus the euro, known as net longs, was 21,315 on April 29, figures from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington show. There were net-short positions in each of the previous 123 weeks. At the same time, traders have stepped up their purchases of options that profit from the dollar's appreciation.
The measures are making long-suffering proponents of the dollar optimistic that this time the currency's rally may hold, especially if the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee refrains from additional interest-rate cuts. The Dollar Index traded on ICE Futures in New York, which tracks the currency against six trading partners, is up 3.3 percent from an all-time low of 70.698 set on March 17.
``There is kind of a sea change taking place at the moment,'' said Mitul Kotecha, head of foreign-exchange research in London at investment bank Calyon, whose forecasts on the euro-dollar exchange rate in the first quarter were more accurate than those of the two biggest currency traders. ``It's probably the early sign of perhaps a more sustained turnaround.''
The dollar has appreciated 3.4 percent to $1.5482 since dropping to $1.6019 per euro on April 22, the lowest since the European currency's debut in 1999. By the end of the year, the dollar will strengthen to $1.50, according to the median estimate of 40 strategists surveyed by Bloomberg.
The dollar's rebound gained traction last month after the Open Market Committee said ``substantial'' rate cuts since September would help foster growth. U.S. employers also eliminated fewer jobs in April than forecast by economists.
Meanwhile, a slide in business confidence in Germany and France, which account for about half the euro-region economy, renewed speculation the European Central Bank will reduce rates this year. An end to lower rates in the U.S. and the possibility of cuts in Europe raises the appeal of dollar-denominated assets.
``The recent shift to a neutral FOMC stance and from a very hawkish European Central Bank stance, together with U.S. data pointing to a stagnation rather than a deep contraction, have already contributed to the dollar's rally,'' said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy in New York at Brown Brothers Harriman Inc. Chandler said he expects the dollar to reach $1.44 per euro by year-end.
Interest-rate futures on the Chicago Board of Trade show an 82 percent chance the Fed will keep its target unchanged at 2 percent when policy makers next meet on June 25, with the balance of the odds calling for a quarter-percentage point cut.
The ECB will lower its 4 percent main refinancing rate to 3.75 percent by the end of September and 3.50 percent by year- end, according to the median estimate of 31 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
As declining home sales and mortgage losses curbed economic growth, investor sentiment grew so negative on the dollar that even longtime pessimists such as Jim Rogers, chairman of Rogers Holdings, say the U.S. currency is due to rebound.
``I expect a nice rally in the American dollar because so many have been bearish on the American dollar, including me,'' he said on May 8 in Singapore. Rogers, who co-founded the Quantum fund with George Soros in the 1970s and correctly predicted the start of the commodities boom in 1999, cited the benefit of surging prices for U.S. agricultural products.
Futures can be viewed as a contrarian indicator because traders often rush to reduce positions when momentum in a currency shifts. The last time net longs were this high, in December 2005, the dollar was nearing the end of a one-year, 13 percent rally versus the euro. It weakened 11 percent in 2006 and depreciated by the same amount in 2007.
``It is more likely than not that reasons for speculators returning to selling the dollar will be greater than reasons for them to sell the euro,'' said Derek Halpenny, head of global- currency research in London at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd., who expects the euro to reach a record high within three months. ``I see risk that the ECB doesn't do anything this year and expect the Fed will ease again in 2008.''
Between May 2005 and the end of that year, futures traders were net long the dollar versus the euro 73 percent of the time. The U.S. currency gained 7.9 percent in that period.
Net-short positions versus all currencies fell to $10 billion in the week ended April 29, from $22 billion in the prior period, according to CFTC data tracked by Morgan Stanley. Speculators had net-long bets on the dollar versus the pound and the euro. Hedge funds and other large speculators were net-short the euro for a second week in the period ended May 6.
In another bullish signal for the dollar, demand for one- month options that grant the right to sell the euro is greater than for those allowing for purchases. The so-called risk- reversal rate had a 0.44 percentage point premium for euro puts relative to calls on May 9.
As recently as March, demand for call options was greater than put options. On Jan. 28, the premium for euro calls reached 0.45 percentage point, the highest since April 2007.
``We may very well have seen the bottom in the dollar,'' said Stephen Jen, the global head of currency research at Morgan Stanley in London, who forecasts the dollar will rise to $1.40 per euro by year-end. ``The dollar has regained some traction lately. Against the euro, the U.S. dollar is around 25 percent undervalued.''