US/China Tensions Escalate

Risk appetite starts the week in poor form. The shock announcement of 5% tariffs on all Mexican exports (from June 10) to the US and an intensification of tensions with China, have fuelled growing expectations of a worsening in the global growth outlook. Safe haven assets such as JPY and CHF are likely to remain in demand while core bond yields are likely to continue to move lower, with markets continuing to raise bets on Fed rate cuts this year.  Indeed the 10y US Treasury yield has dropped by 1.1% since 8 November last year, with the fall in yields accelerating over recent weeks.

US/China tensions escalated over the weekend, with the deputy head of China’s negotiating team, Wang Shouwen, accusing the US of “resorting to intimidation and coercion”.  This coincides with the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods coming into effect over the weekend as Chinese shipments reached US shores, while earlier on Saturday Chinese tariffs on $60bn of US exports came into effect.  There is also growing speculation that China may curb exports of rare earth exports to the US.

Wang accused the US of abusing export controls and persisting with “exorbitant” demands and insisting on “mandatory requirements that infringe on China’s sovereign affairs”.   Meanwhile China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe, said that China will “fight to the end” on trade if needed.  China is also starting to investigate foreign companies who have violated Chinese law.  Soon after Chinese state media reported that the government was investigating FedEx for allegedly “undermining the legitimate rights and interest” of its Chinese clients.

Attention this week will be on several central bank decisions including the ECB (6th June), RBA (4th June) and RBI (6th June).  The market is fully priced in for an RBA rate cut to 1.25% this week.  The ECB is unlikely to surprise, with no change in policy likely.  Attention will be on terms of the TLTRO III while ECB President Draghi is likely to sound dovish in his press conference.  RBI is set to cut policy rates again, with Friday’s release of weaker than expected Q1 GDP adding to pressure on the Reserve Bank to boost growth amid low inflation.

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Firm China data boosts sentiment

It is turning into a solid start to the week for global equity markets and risk assets in general.  Growth concerns are easing and central banks globally have shelved plans to tighten policy.  Comments over the weekend that finance chiefs and central bank stand ready to “act promptly” to support growth, may also reassure markets. Meanwhile, it appears that the US and China are closing in on a trade deal, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin stating that enforcement mechanisms could work “in both directions”, potentially easing disagreement on of the contentious issues between the two countries.

In terms of data and events, US Q1 earnings, US March retail sales and industrial production, will be in focus this week alongside more Chinese growth data, elections in Indonesia and the second phase of elections in India.  In Europe, flash purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) for April will give some indication of whether there is any turnaround in growth prospects.  The news will not be particularly good on this front, but the surveys may at least show signs of stabilisation, albeit at weak levels.

China data at the end of last week was particularly supportive, with March aggregate financing, money supply and new yuan loans all beating expectations.  The data add to other evidence of a bounce back in activity in March, with the official manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) moving back into expansion territory.   The data comes off a low base after weakness in January and February, but suggests that Chinese monetary and fiscal stimulus is taking effect, with the economy steering towards a soft landing.

Chinese markets clearly like what they see, with equities maintain their strong year to date rally (The CSI Index is up over 34% year to date) and CNY remaining firm (CNY has been the strongest performing Asian currency versus USD so far this year) though China’s bond market will react less well to signs of growth stabilisation.  Chinese data this week including Q1 GDP, March retail sales and industrial production are set to add further evidence of growth stabilisation, helping to keep the positive market momentum alive.

ECB meeting, Brexit, Fed minutes, China trade, India elections in focus

This week there a number of key events to focus attention on including European Central Bank (ECB) policy meeting, Federal Reserve FOMC March minutes, the commencement of India’s general elections, China data, and further Brexit developments as UK Prime Minister May tries to gain a further short extension to the Brexit deadline, until June 30.

The better than expected US March jobs report, revealing a bigger than expected 196k increase in jobs, with a softer than expected 0.1% monthly increase in hourly earnings, which effectively revealed a firm jobs market, without major wage pressures, helped US markets close off the week on a positive note. The data adds to further evidence that the Fed may not need to hike policy rates further.

The European Central Bank decision is likely to prove uneventful though recent comments by ECB President Draghi have fuelled speculation that the central bank will introduce a tiered deposit system to alleviate the impact of negative rates on banks.   EUR is unlikely to benefit from this.  Separately Fed FOMC minutes will be scrutinised to ascertain how dovish the Fed has become as the markets shift towards pricing in rate cuts, but it is unlikely that the minutes provide further fuel to interest rate doves.

Friday is the deadline to agree on an extension with the EU to prevent a hard Brexit.  Meanwhile PM May is set to restart talks with opposition Labour Party leader Corbyn to thrash out a cross party agreement on Brexit terms ahead of an EU summit on Wednesday that will look at her request for a Brexit extension until June 30.  GBP has lost momentum lately and investors appear to be fatigued with the daily Brexit news gyrations.

Meanwhile, US-China trade talks appear to be edging towards some sort of a deal while Chinese data this week is also likely to be supportive for risk assets.   As China eases financing conditions, evidence of a pick up in the credit impulse will be evident in March aggregate financing, new loans and money supply data this week.   Meanwhile China’s March trade data is likely to look better or at least less negative than over recent months. This suggests that risk assets will likely fare well this week.

India will be in the spotlight as India’s multi stage elections kick off on Thursday.  Prime Minister Modi is in good stead to ahead of elections, boosted by his government’s reaction to recent terrorist attacks on Indian paramilitary in Kashmir.   Concerns that Modi’s ruling BJP would lose a significant amount of seats in the wake of state election losses towards the end of last year have receded.  Nonetheless, election uncertainties may keep the INR on the backfoot this week.

A world of lower yields

This is yet another important week for Brexit deliberations as UK Prime Minister May, under pressure to resign, may bring her Brexit deal agreed with European Union back to Parliament.   Parliament could vote on different Brexit options in a series of indicative votes as early as Wednesday, including possible options of a soft Brexit or second referendum.  MPs will decide today whether to take control of the parliamentary agenda.  GBP meanwhile continues its two steps forward, one step back trajectory, but appears to be finding solid demand on any down step.

Also in focus this week will be a number of Fed speakers who will speak at a time when bond yields are sliding globally.  Markets were roiled by growth worries at the end of last week following a sharp drop in German manufacturing confidence (The Markit/BME PMI fell to 44.7 in March from 47.6 in February), which dampened hopes that weakness in the Eurozone economy would be temporary.   Taken together with dovish comments from G10 central bankers, the net result was an inversion of the yield curve and German bond yields turned negative.  Such signs have in the past been associated with the onset of a recession.

Despite a host of factors including lower US yields, a more dovish Fed stance, markets shifting towards pricing in US rate cuts, and restrained USD, emerging market (EM) assets have not benefitted greatly.  EM assets are torn between these factors on the one hand and global growth concerns on the other.  A host of idiosyncratic factors, whether it is political noise and pension reform in Brazil, or the impending Moodys’ review of South Africa this week, Thai elections etc, etc, are also resulting in more discriminatory investing.

US –China trade talks will also continue to be in focus this week, with the US administration’s Lighthizer and Mnuchin schedule to be in Beijing on March on Thursday and Friday to meet with China’s Lie He, who is planned to travel to Washington in the week after.  Structural issues such as technology transfers, state subsidies and intellectual property and the removal of all tariffs, have been stumbling blocks so far.  Latest reports reveal that China is refusing to back down on US demands that it eases restrictions on digital trades.   The absence of progress on trade talks are yet another reason for markets to trade under a shadow.

 

Central Banks Galore

Although markets are quietening down and liquidity is thinning ahead of the holidays there are still a few important and potentially market moving events this week.   These include several central bank meetings, with the Fed FOMC at the top of the pile on Wednesday.  The Fed is widely expected to hike by 25bp to between 2.25% and 2.50% and remove any remaining forward guidance.

A few weeks ago there was little doubt that the Fed would hike rates this month, but since then it has looked like less of a done deal.  Dovish comments from Fed officials suggest that there will be a lot of attention on Fed Chairman Powell’s press conference, especially following his recent comments that interest rates are “just below neutral”.   Although the Fed is likely to hike, it is likely to be seen as a dovish hike, which ought to leave the USD without much support.

In Asia there are three central bank meetings in focus.  On Wednesday the Bank of Thailand (BoT) is likely to hike its benchmark by 25bps to 1.75%, largely due to financial imbalances (household debt and bad loans) rather than inflation concerns.  On Thursday Taiwan’s central bank meeting (CBC) is likely to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 1.375%, with low and declining inflation, suggesting the long held status quo will be maintained.

Also on Thursday I expect no change in policy by Bank Indonesia. Inflation is clearly non-threatening from BI’s perspective and unless the IDR weakens anew, BI will increasingly be in a position to keep its powder dry. Elsewhere in Asia, the Bank of Japan will be in focus.  No change in policy is widely expected on Thursday, with the central bank still well away from any tightening in policy given still low inflation.

Not much good news

There are a plethora of issues weighing on asset markets though sentiment has improved slightly today.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend and a revision lower to Japanese GDP data yesterday added to growing global growth concerns, against the background of waning hopes of a resolution to the US-China trade war.

US administration comments that there was a hard deadline for trade talks have not helped sentiment either.  News today that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and US Trade Rep Lighthizer on a timetable and road map on trade talks provided some relief, however.

In the US, growth expectations are undergoing a shift and talk of a Fed pause is growing.  This would be considered as good news for EM if it wasn’t for the fact that a pause could be due to US growth concerns rather than any sense that the Fed was approaching its terminal rate.  US November CPI, retail sales, and industrial production data will give more clues, but I still think the Fed policy rates next week.

In the UK, Brexit worries have intensified following the decision by Prime Minister May to the delay the vote on a deal in parliament given she would most likely would have faced a defeat had it gone ahead.  May will now go on a tour of European capitals to try to improve the Brexit deal but prospects don’t look good, especially as European Council president Tusk has already ruled out any negotiation of the deal and in particular the Irish backstop.

GBP was pummeled as a result of the delay and will continue to struggle in the short term given the lack visibility.  A revised deal appears difficult while a hard Brexit and even a new referendum are all on the table.

Calm after the storm

After yesterday’s carnage, global equity markets have recovered some of their poise. Whether this is a pause before another wave of pressure or something more sustainable is debatable. It appears that US equities are finally succumbing to a plethora of bad news.  Higher US yields have driven the equity risk premium lower.  Also there’s probably a degree of profit taking ahead of the onset of the Q3 US earnings season.

At the same time valuations have become increasingly stretched.  For example, the S&P 500 price/earnings ratio is around 6% higher than its 5 year average while almost all emerging market price/earnings ratios are well below their 5 year averages.  While strong US growth prospects may justify some or even all of this differential, the gap with emerging markets has widened significantly.

While US President Trump blames an “out of control” US Federal Reserve, it would have been hard for the Fed to do anything else but raise policy rates at its last meeting.  If the Fed didn’t hike at the end of September, bond yields would like have moved even higher than the 3.26% reached on the 10 year US Treasury yield earlier this week as markets would have believed the Fed is falling behind the curve.   However, as US yields rise and the equity risk premium reacts, the opportunity cost of investing in equities rises too.

In the FX world the US dollar could succumb to more pressure if US equities fall further but as we saw yesterday, USD weakness may mainly be expressed versus other major currencies (EUR etc).  Emerging market currencies continue to face too many headwinds including higher US rates and tightening USD liquidity, as well as trade tariffs.  The fact that emerging market growth indicators are slowing, led by China, also does not bode well for EM assets.  Unfortunately that means that emerging market assets will not benefit for the time being from any rout in US assets despite their valuation differences.

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