Tensions Take A Turn For The Worse

As highlighted in my post last week markets face “Risks of a body blow” amid an intensification of tensions between the US and China.  Such tensions have worsened over recent days in the wake of the decision announced at the start of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to draft national security legislation for Hong Kong, which would reportedly bypass the territory’s Legislative Council.

The news prompted a slide in Hong Kong equities, demonstrations in Hong Kong and a strong reaction from the US Secretary of State. Attention will also turn to whether China’s decision will push the US administration into imposing sanctions based on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed last year by Congress as well as remove the special trading status that Hong Kong enjoys with the US.

Unrelated to the above, but in line with the strengthening in non tariff measures being applied to China, the US Senate passed a bill that would effectively result in a de-listing any companies from the US stock exchange if they did not comply with US regulatory audits. In particular, Chinese company listings will be at risk given that many Chinese companies would fall into this category.  This follows hot on the heels of tougher restrictions on the sale of US technology, and the ordering of the main US federal government pension fund not to invest in Chinese equities.

Markets are right to be nervous, with tensions only likely to intensify ahead of elections, but as noted in my previous post, it seems highly unlikely that the US administration would want to tear up the “Phase 1” trade deal at this stage given the impact on domestic producers and consumers.  Instead expect more non trade measures, export controls, visa restrictions, etc, to move into place.  If the US economy/asset markets rebound more strongly, the risk of a breakdown in the trade deal will likely grow as the administration may have more confidence at that point.   Either way, the November 2020 presidential election will have a large bearing on policy towards China.

China can also not risk a major flare up in tensions at this stage given the pressure on its economy even as it has largely opened up post the Covid-19 lockdown measures.  The magnitude of the growth shock was on show last Friday, with the NPC dropping its growth target from its work report for the first time.  This was a prudent move given that growth this year is subject to much more uncertainty than usual in the wake of the Covid-19 shock, but it also suggests that Chinese authorities do not want to commit to the type of stimulus enacted in 2008, which resulted in a sharp build up in leverage in the economy.  GDP growth fell by 6.8% y/y in Q1 and is likely to come in at best around half of last year’s 6.1 rate.

As such, the risks to markets has moved from the virus (though second round infections remains a key risk to markets) to geopolitical.   Nor have economic risks have dissipated.  A cursory glance at data globally makes this obvious.  Markets have tried to look past the data, but risks remain high that growth recovery will be far more prolonged than is being currently priced in.  At some point, maybe soon, it will be hard to keep looking past the data, when what is in view is not pleasant at all.

 

 

US-China tensions – Risks of a body blow to markets

Tensions between the US and China are once again escalating, resulting in growing nervousness in markets and raising concerns of a further deterioration in global trade at a time when the world is increasingly reeling from the devastating economic impact of Covid-19.   As many countries open up their economies hopes that activity can finally begin to resume, has strengthened.  However, the economic cost is still mounting and as revealed in awful economic data globally over recent weeks the picture is a horrible one.

It will be a fine balancing act for the US administration between imposing more trade tariffs and in turn hurting US importers on the one hand and punishing China for accusations of concealing information about spreading Covid-19 on the other.  President Trump recently threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China, which threatens the “Phase 1” trade deal reached at the beginning of this year.   Recent moves by the US administration include instructing a federal pensions fund to shift some investments in Chinese stocks and tightening export controls on Chinese telecoms company Huawei and its suppliers, which the US administrations says are contrary to US national security.

However, the White House may want to keep trade separate from other measures including tighter export controls and investment restrictions.  Indeed recent talks between senior US and Chinese officials on implementing the Phase 1 deal appeared to be cordial and constructive while Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council said on Friday that the trade deal is continuing.  This is logical.  Renewed tariffs on imports from China would hurt the US consumer, while likely retaliation from China would mean any chance of China increasing its purchases of US goods as part of the Phase 1 deal would disappear, inflicting more pain on the US economy.

One other major consequence of a new round of US tariffs on China would likely be a weaker Chinese currency.  So far China has avoided weakening the yuan, which could also provoke increased capital outflows from China (as it did in Jan 2015 and mid 2016) and a drain on FX reserves at a time when Chinese growth is slowing sharply.  However, China may yet opt for a sharp depreciation/devaluation of the yuan to retaliate against fresh tariffs and to support its exporters as it did when the US first imposed tariffs on the country.  Although this comes with risks for China as noted above, if it was sold as a one off move and was well controlled, it need not fuel an increase in capital outflows from China. This is something that the US will wish to avoid.

Although the US may want to avoid trade as the primary target of any pressure on China, this does not mean that tensions will not increase.  In fact it is highly likely that the relationship between the US and China will worsen ahead of US elections in November, especially as it is one issue which garners broad support among the US electorate. As such, US measures will likely skirt trade restrictions but will most probably involve a whole host of other measures including tightening export controls, student visa restrictions, investment restrictions, and other such measures.  Markets hardly need a reason to be nervous, but after a multi week rally, this is an issue that could prove to be a major body blow to risk assets.

Opening Up

Attention is squarely going to be on efforts to open up economies in the days and weeks ahead.  Most US states are opening up to varied degrees while the same is happening across Europe.  The risk of course is that a second or even third wave of Covid-19 emerges for some countries, as is being seen in some parts of Asia, for example Korea where renewed social distancing measures have been put in place after a fresh cluster of cases in clubs and bars there.

However, governments will need to weigh up these risks against the growing economic costs of lockdown, which will by no means be easy.  Even as social distancing and lockdown measures are eased, it will likely be a gradual process, with activity likely to remain under pressure.  This is when the real test for markets will take place.  While markets have clearly been buoyed by unprecedented stimulus measures, especially from the Federal Reserve, which could continue for some time, fiscal injections will run their course over the next couple of months.

As revealed in April US jobs data at the end of last week the costs in terms of increased unemployment has been severe. The US unemployment rate hit a post war high of 14.7% while 20.5 million people lost their jobs.  This news will be echoed globally. Markets were expecting bad news and therefore the reaction was limited, but the data will nonetheless put more pressure on policy makers to keep the stimulus taps open.  Discussions are already in place between US Republican and Democrats over a new package, though disagreements on various issues suggest a deal may not happen soon.

Another spanner in the works is tensions between the US and China.  The US administration has become more vocal on blaming China for the virus, over recent weeks.  This had threatened to undermine the “phase 1” trade deal agreed a few months ago.  However, there were some soothing remarks on this front, with a phone call between senior US and Chinese officials last week, highlighting “good progress” on implementing the deal.  Despite such progress, it may not calm tensions over the cause of the virus, especially ahead of US elections in November and markets are likely to remain nervous in the weeks ahead.

This week there will be more evidence on tap to reveal the economic onslaught of the virus, just as many countries are finally flattening the virus curve itself.   Q1 GDP releases will reveal weakness in several countries.  Chinese activity data including retail sales and industrial production as well as credit metrics will give further evidence of the virus impact and how quickly China is recovering.  If anything, China’s recovery path will likely show the pain ahead for many economies that are easing lockdown measures.  In the US, inflation data and retail sales will garner attention.  In terms of central banks attention will be on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ). While no change in policy rates is likely a step up in the RBNZ’s asset purchases may take place.

 

 

 

 

Covid-19 Economic Toll Worsening

Unease about the economic toll of Covid-19 is starting to dent the rebound in equity markets.  The disconnect between the strength of the rally in equities and the reality on the ground has become increasingly visible following recent earnings releases including from tech heavyweights Apple and Amazon, and dismal economic data which included sharp falls in US and Eurozone Q1 GDP data.  Q2 will look even worse as most of the economic damage was inflicted in April, suggesting that the pain is just beginning.

Meanwhile geopolitical tensions between the US and China are adding another layer of pressure on markets, with US President Trump stating that he had seen strong evidence that Covid-19 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.  Trump’s comments have raised the spectre of a renewed trade war between the two countries at a time when in any case it was looking increasingly difficult for China to live up to its end of the agreement to purchase a substantial amount of US goods in the wake of a Phase 1 deal.

Some of the economic pain emanating from the shutdowns will be on show this week, with the US April jobs report likely to reveal a sharp rise in the jobless rate and massive decline in non-farm payrolls, with markets looking for an increase to around 16% and a drop of 22 million, respectively.  Already jobless claims have risen to over 30 million, with the only silver lining being that the rate of increase in claims has declined over recent weeks.  The extremely sharp deterioration in job market conditions threatens to weigh heavily on recovery.

The US dollar fell towards the end of March due in part to month end rebalancing (given US equity and bond market outperformance over the month), but also due to a general improvement in risk sentiment, reducing any safe have demand for dollars.  If as is likely markets become increasingly nervous about the sustainability of the rally in risk assets, the USD is likely to move higher during the next few weeks. Even in an environment where global equities sell off, US assets are still better placed in terms of return potential than those elsewhere, implying US dollar outperformance.

In terms of data and events focus this will turn to the Bank of England and Reserve Bank of Australia policy meetings.  Neither are likely to cut interest rates further, but the BoE could announced a further increase in asset purchases, while conversely the RBA is likely to maintain its asset purchases tapering path.  Aside from the US jobs data noted above, the other piece of data globally that will be watched carefully is China’s April trade report.  A weak outcome is likely for sure, but the extent of deterioration in exports and imports, will have very negative global consequences.

Fed, ECB, BoJ In Focus This Week

Three major central banks meet to decide on monetary policy this week, but after massive and unprecedented actions over past weeks, there is likely to be little new in terms of additional policy measures announced by the US Federal Reserve (Fed), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BoJ) in the days ahead.  Key data this week include US Q1 GDP, the April US ISM manufacturing survey and China’s April purchasing manager’s index (PMI).

The Fed has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Covid-19 to combat the severe economic and market impact emanating from the virus.  This included aggressive rate cuts, unlimited asset purchases (Treasuries, MBS), purchases of commercial paper, loans to small businesses, easing rules for banks and provision of US dollar swap lines with other central banks to help ease global USD demand pressures.  Aside from some fine tuning, there may not be much else the Fed will do at its meeting on Wednesday. Meanwhile the US ISM survey (Fri) is likely to post a sharp decline (consensus 37.0).

Markets have reacted well to the measures announced and implemented so far, but as noted there is a growing disconnect between the rally in equity markets over recent weeks and rapidly worsening economic data.  US Q1 GDP data (Wed) this week will likely reveal some of the damage, with a 4% q/q annualised fall in GDP forecast by the consensus. Q2 GDP will be even weaker however, as most of the weakness in activity will have taken place in April and will have likely continued into May and June.

The ECB continues to face pressure to do more as Eurozone activity continues to plunge.  So far the main thrust of the ECB’s measures are EUR 750bn of bond purchases and loosening of restrictions on such purchases.  However, sovereign spreads, especially in the periphery (especially Italy) are under pressure and the ECB may need to act again soon though perhaps not as early as the meeting this Thursday.  The ECB will also likely shift the onus of further easing to fiscal, especially the proposed “recovery fund”, which continues to fuel major divisions between European countries.

Last but not least the BoJ meeting on Monday will probably be the most active in terms of new measures, but on balance they will probably do little to move markets.   At the last meeting the BoJ significantly increased the amount of ETFs they would purchase, which to some extent has helped the Nikkei 225 rally over recent weeks.  At this meeting the BoJ is unlikely to alter its negative interest rate policy, but is likely to remove its JPY 80 trillion cap on JGB purchases and announce an increase in corporate bond purchases along with other measures to ease credit.

On the data front China’s official manufacturing PMI is likely to remain around or just above the expansionary threshold of 50 as much of China’s supply side of the economy opens up.  However, the ability to retain expansion at a time when global demand and therefore China’s export markets are collapsing, will prove difficult.  China’s authorities appear to be increasingly realising this and have stepped up support both on the fiscal (via special bond issuance) and monetary side (targeted cuts in various rates), but so far the scale of easing has been limited and Q1 growth was especially weak.

Look Past The Data At Your Peril

Markets have been willing to look past weak economic data despite the spate of dire economic releases recently, even as economic forecasts have been not been revised as aggressively lower as they should have been.  Reality may come back to bite. It is one thing to look past the data, but a reality check may lie beyond.

Economic forecasts continue to come in below expectations in the US; the Citi US Economic Surprise Index (a measure of data releases relative to consensus expectations) fell to a record low last week.  Among the key releases last week was US weekly jobless claims, which revealed another 5.245 million Americans filing first time claims for unemployment insurance. The total has now reached over 22 million, highlighting that the US jobless rate could reach above 15%.

Weak data has had little bearing on equity markets, which continue to rally on signs of virus curve flattening, expectations of economic re-opening, stimulus measures and vaccine hopes.  For instance the S&P 500 is now almost 30% above the lows set on March 23 having rallied strongly over recent weeks. This week attention will turn to Q1 corporate earnings though the signals will be more difficult to discern as increasingly companies are withdrawing forward guidance and ranges for earnings expectations look very wide.  Against this background earnings outliers are likely to provoke a bigger response.  Key earnings this week include IBM, P&G, Netflix, Snapp, ATT, Delta, and Intel.

Sentiment will also be directed by moves to open up economies.  However, this is likely to be a very drawn out process, suggesting scope for disappointment. For example, in Harbin, China, a new cluster has recently forced the authorities to reverse opening up measures. In the US there has been growing demonstrations against lockdown measures. Some states are about to ease restrictions, but they only account for a small proportion of GDP.  While there is a growing push to open up economies to avoid further economic pain, to do so prematurely, would threaten to inflict a new wave of infections.

Meanwhile oil is continuing to garner plenty of attention and unlike stocks, maybe more reflective of the economic pain ahead, with prices continuing to slide, and near term prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) trading at major discounts to later contracts. Fears that storage facilities in the US will run out of capacity are keeping the pressure on near term prices despite the OPEC+ deal to cut 9.7mn barrels a day of output.  Demand fears are adding to the downdraft on prices, with China’s Q1 GDP data, which revealed that growth fell by 6.8% y/y, highlighting the intensifying demand pressures on crude.

Everything But The Kitchen Sink

Since my last post there has been an even bigger onslaught of fiscal and monetary stimulus measures globally in an attempt to combat the devasting health and economic impact of COVID-19.  Fiscal stimulus in the US will amount to over 10% of GDP while the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is set to grow further from an already large $6+ trillion at present as the Fed throws everything but the kitchen sink to combat the impact of the virus. There is already preparations underway for another phase of fiscal stimulus in the US.

Europe meanwhile, has struggled to agree upon a package given divisions between the North and South of the region, but eventually agreed upon EUR 500bn worth of fiscal stimulus while the ECB is undertaking renewed asset purchases in a new quantitative easing programme.  Many other countries have stepped up their efforts too.  All of this will provide an invaluable cushion, but will not prevent a massive economic downturn, nor will it stop the virus from spreading.

Markets have attempted to look past the growing economic risks, spurred by data showing that in many countries the rate of growth of coronavirus cases has slowed, including in those with a substantial number of deaths such as Italy and Spain.  Even in New York, which has been the epicentre of COVID-19 infections in the US, there are positive signs though it is an ominous sign that the US has now recorded the most deaths globally.

This move towards flattening of the curve has fuelled hopes that many countries will soon be able to emerge from lock downs.  In China, which was first in, most of the manufacturing sector has opened up, while there has even been some relaxation of measures to constrain movement of people.  The net result of all of the above last week, was the biggest weekly rally in US stocks since 1974.

While the 25%+ rally in US equities since their lows is reflecting this optimism, there is a major risk that this is a bear market rally given the risks ahead.  Economic growth estimates continue to be revised lower and the IMF’s revised forecasts scheduled to be published this week are likely to show a global economy on the rails, with growth likely to be at its worst since the Great Depression according to the IMF’s Managing Director.  Emerging markets, which do not have anywhere near the firepower or health systems of developed economies are particularly at risk.

At the same time earnings expectations have yet to reflect the massively negative impact on corporate profits likely in the months ahead; Q1 earnings to be released in the days ahead will be closely watched.  Not only are earnings expectations likely to be revised substantially lower, but many companies will simply not survive and many of those that do could end up in state hands if they are important enough.  Separately there is a risk that shutdowns last longer than expected or once economies begin to open up there another wave of infections.  These risk have not yet been fully appreciated by markets unfortunately.

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