Combating Recession Risks

Following a volatile last week market attention will remain on trade tensions, measures to combat the risks of recession and will turn to the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium at the end of the week. The inversion of the US yield curve has led to growing expectations that the US is heading into recession and has spurred inflows into bonds. As a result US Treasury yields continue to fall and the stockpile of negative yielding debt has risen to well over $16 trillion. While economic data in the US remains relatively firm, the picture in the rest of the world has deteriorated sharply as reflected in weakening German and Chinese trade, against the background of a weak trade backdrop.

There have been some mixed headlines on trade over the weekend – Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council under President Trump, said yesterday that recent phone calls between US and Chinese trade negotiators had been “positive”, with more teleconference meetings planned over the next 10 days.  Separately US media reported that the US commerce department was preparing to extend a temporary license for companies to do business with Huawei for 90 days. However, Trump poured cold water on this by stating that “Huawei is a company that we may not do business with at all”.  A decision will be made today.

In the wake of growing expectations of recession, attention is turning on what will be done by governments and central banks to combat such risks.  The Jackson Hole meeting on Thursday will be particularly important to gauge what major central bankers are thinking and in particular whether and to what degree Federal Reserve Chairman Powell is planning on cutting US rates further.  We will be able to garner further evidence of Fed deliberations, with the release of the Fed FOMC July meeting minutes on Wednesday.

While central bankers look at potential monetary policy steps governments are likely to look at ways of providing further fiscal stimulus.  Kudlow stated that the US administration was “looking at” the prospects of tax cuts, while pressure on the German government to loosen is purse strings has also grown.  Even in the UK where a hard Brexit looms, the government is reportedly readying itself with a fiscal package to support growth in the aftermath.   Such news will come as a relief to markets, but recession worries are not likely to dissipate quickly, which will likely keep volatility elevated, and maintain the bias towards safe haven assets in the weeks ahead.

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Fed’s Powell, China trade, Japan-Korea tensions

Markets cheered Fed Chair Powell’s testimony to the US Congress this week, with Powell all but confirming that the Fed will cut interest rates in the US by 25bps later this month.  Powell’s comments yesterday and Wednesday highlighted the risks to the US economy including the threats from persistently low inflation, worsening global trade outlook, weak global growth, and possibility that Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, even as he saw “the economy as being in a good place”.  His comments highlight that any easing this month, would be an insurance cut, but markets are expecting the Fed to ease further in the months ahead, with at least one more priced in by the market this year.

Meanwhile attention remains focused on trade tensions. On this front, president Trump complained overnight that China hasn’t increased its purchases of US farm products, something that he said China had pledged to do at the G20 meeting when he met with China’s President Xi.  Data released yesterday showed that Chinese purchases of US agricultural good have actually slowed.  According to the US department of Agriculture China bought 127,800 metric tons of US soybeans last week and 76 tons of US pork, both sharp reductions compared to previous weeks.  Chinese media for its part says that the country had not committed to increasing purchases, but rather that Trump had hoped China would buy more goods.  Clearly, there is has left plenty of confusion about what was actually agreed upon.

Trade tensions have also risen in Asia, with tensions between South Korea and Japan intensifying.  Japan is implementing restrictions on exports to Korea of chemicals essential for chip making in retaliation over a ruling by Korea’s Supreme court awarding damages against Japanese companies for forced labour during the second world war. Japan says that such claims were settled under a 1965 treaty and is seeking arbitration. Korea evidently disagrees. The trade spat could also have widespread implications given the wide range of products that South Korean chips are used in, impacting supply chains globally.  Meetings between Japanese and Korean officials today will be watched for any rapprochement but any near term solution looks unlikely.

Dovish Fed Hits The US Dollar

The US Federal Reserve shifted towards a dovish stance yesterday and asset markets applauded.   Against the background of signs of slowing growth, intensifying trade tensions and growing “uncertainties” about the economic outlook, the Fed removed the previous “patient” stance and instead noted that “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion”.   The bottom line is that the Fed is priming the market for easing as early as July, though the market had already primed itself by moving sharply in terms of pricing in rate cuts over recent weeks.   The market is now pricing in three rate cuts this year and at least one next year, which seems reasonable.

Clearly there are a huge number of uncertainties ahead, making the Fed’s job particularly difficult and the picture could look quite different should the upcoming G20 meeting in Japan (28-29 June) deliver some form of trade agreement between the US and China.  This would likely result in less need for Fed easing.  As I have noted previously there are still a huge number of challenges and obstacles to any such agreement, suggesting that market hopes of an agreement stand a good risk of being dashed.   Until then, risk assets will remain upbeat, with equity markets rallying in the wake of the Fed decision even as bond yields moved lower and gold prices reached a 5-year high.

The USD remains under pressure and took another blow in the wake of the FOMC meeting.  The USD has now lost ground against almost all G10 currencies except GBP amid Brexit concerns over the last month.  This has extended today and the currency looks set to remain under pressure in the short term as markets continue to price in Fed rate cuts.  The tension between President Trump and Fed Chairman Powell is not doing the USD any good either.  The USD index (DXY) is now threatening to break below its 200-day moving average (96.710) though this has proven to provide strong support in the past.  A sustained break below this level could see the USD extend losses against major and many emerging market currencies.

Central Banks Galore

It’s a big week for central banks.  Several central banks globally meet to decide upon monetary policy this week.  The biggest focus will be on the Fed FOMC but this week also sees Norges Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and central banks in Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Brazil meet.

Markets are already aggressive in pricing in Fed rate cuts.  As US-China trade tensions have worsened markets have intensified their expectations of Fed easing, with around 75bps of easing already priced in.  Given how much is priced in in terms of Fed easing, if the Fed does not validate this with a dovish statement and/or shift in the dot plot there could be a significant risks of disappointment, which could weigh on equities, but leave the USD on a firmer footing.

Admittedly the Bank of Japan is more constrained than the Fed in terms of policy room, but their rhetoric has become more dovish.  I don’t expect easing anytime soon but the BoJ is likely to sound dovish and could offer some enhanced forward guidance.  BoJ governor Kuroda outlined four options in terms of more policy stimulus, with one being a further cut in the deposit rate.  However, BoJ would need to outline how they plan to alleviate the pressure on bank profits from such a move.

Bank of England is unlikely to move.  Data in the UK has been mixed, with softening in Q2 growth but ongoing pressure on inflation given the tightness of the labour market.  It’s also difficult for the BoE given the large amount of Brexit uncertainty. GBP risks remain to the downside over the short term especially given the heightening political noise in the UK.  The Norges Bank is likely to stand out amongst the crowd, with a rate hike expected, its second in just three months.

Elsewhere in Asia I expect no change from Bank Indonesia, BSP in the Philippines, and CBC in Taiwan. Bank Indonesia is edging towards a rate cut amid low inflation and slowing activity, but will likely want to see further signs of IDR stability before pulling the trigger to begin reversing the 175bp of hikes implemented in 2018.

Weaker activity in Taiwan calls for some sort of stimulus but the reality is that a rate cut will do little to alleviate the pain given that much of the problem is due to external factors.  Instead much of the adjustment may take place on the currency front.

I expect the BSP in the Philippines to maintain its overnight borrowing rate at 4.50% at this week’s meeting while signalling more RRR cuts ahead. Although CPI came in above expectations in May, at 3.2% y/y, it remains close to the midpoint of the BSP’s 2-4% band and I don’t expect it to stand in the way of further easing, but think BSP may wait until at least August to move again.

 

 

Brexit – What next?

The drubbing that the main UK political parties (Conservatives and Labour) received in the European elections highlights the increasing polarisation of UK politics.  Both took a fudged view on how to go about Brexit while the remainers including the Lib Dems and the hard brexiters led by the newly formed Brexit Part, garnered most votes.  The outcome sends a clear signal of public frustration and impatience at the lack of progress in leaving the EU three years after the Brexit referendum.

A new leader of the Conservative party will likely steer towards a harder Brexit, but this may not resolve the impasse, something that has already brought down Prime Minister Theresa May.  In any case it is unlikely that the EU will want to renegotiate the terms of the Brexit deal agreed with May just because there is a new leader.  Divisions within the Conservative party itself continue to remain stark.  In the meantime Labour leader Corbyn is under pressure to make a clearer shift towards remaining in the EU.

Parliament meanwhile, has already voted against allowing a hard Brexit, suggesting that it is going to be extremely difficult to deliver a no deal or hard Brexit without fresh general elections.  However, as the European elections have shown, fresh UK general elections would spell doom for both the Conservatives and Labour unless they moved to harder stances on either side of the spectrum.  The Conservatives may not risk such an outcome.

This leaves a second referendum as an increasingly viable option, one which would put the question of remaining or a hard Brexit back to the public and out of the hands of parliament.  Indeed given the lack of alternatives and inability of parliament to move forward on Brexit, this may turn out to be the most prescient option although this runs risks of its own including fuelling demands for a fresh Scottish referendum.

GBP has continued to slide amid a clear lack of progress among politicians to arrive at a viable Brexit strategy and increasing risks of a hard Brexit.  However, if markets see a growing chance of a fresh referendum, GBPUSD could reverse some of its recent losses as remain hopes are rekindled, possibly breaking back above 1.30 at the least.   It is not by any means clear that remainers would win such a referendum, but at least they would have a chance that did not exist previously and that could be sufficient to give GBP a bounce.

Awaiting More US Tariffs And China Retaliation

Weekend developments in the trade war included China’s denial that they had reneged on any prior agreements, contrary to what the US administration has said as a rationale for ratcheting up tariffs on China.  In fact, China’s vice-minister Liu He said that such changes (to the draft) were “natural”.  He also said the remaining differences were “matters of principle”,  which implies that China will not make concessions on such some key structural issues.  This does not bode well for a quick agreement.

Meanwhile Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow suggested that Trump and China’s President Xi could meet at the G20 meeting at the end of June. This offers a glimmer of hope but in reality such a meeting would achieve little without any agreement on substantive issues, which appears a long way off.  Markets now await details from the US administration on tariffs on a further $325bn of Chinese exports to the US effectively covering all Chinese exports to the US.

China has promised retaliation and we could see them outline further tariffs on US exports in the next couple of days as well as the possible introduction of non-tariff barriers, making life harder for US companies in China.  The bottom line is that any deal now seems far off while the risk of further escalation on both sides has risen.  Global markets are increasingly taking fright as a result, especially emerging market assets.

There are no further negotiations scheduled between the US and China though Kudlow has said that China has invited Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and trade representative Lighthizer to Beijing for further talks.  Given that Trump now appears to have a unified administration as well as many Republicans and Democrats behind him while China is digging its heels in this, don’t expect a resolution anytime soon.

China’s currency CNY is facing growing pressure as the US-China trade war escalates.   The CNY CFETS index has weakened by around 1% in just over a week (ie CNY has depreciated relative to its trading partners) and is now at its weakest since 20 Feb 19.  While not weaponising the currency, there’s every chance that China will manage CNY depreciation to help compensate Chinese exporters for the pressure faced from higher tariffs (as appeared to take place last summer). Expect more pain ahead.

‘Beautiful’ Letter Fails To Stop Tariffs

At 12.01 EST the US escalated tariffs on China, following up on US President Trump’s tweets last weekend.  The tariffs escalation follows what the US administration says was backtracking by China on a number of structural issues in an earlier draft of a trade agreement.   Markets had been nervously anticipating this escalation all week, but also hoping that it could be avoided in some way.

A day of talks in Washington between Chinese officials led by Chinese vice-minister Liu He and US officials including US Trade Representative Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin failed to lead to any agreements or even any sign of progress despite President’s Trump’s tweeting that he received a “beautiful” letter from Chinese President Xi.

Talks are set to resume later but chances of any breakthrough appear slim.  China appears to have taken a harder line on subordinating to some of the US demands for structural changes and don’t appear to have been too phased by the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods from 10 to 25%.  The US side on the other hand appear to be taking a tough stance emboldened by the strength of the economy.

China has vowed retaliation but at the time of writing has not outlined any plans for any reciprocal tariffs.  Trump has also stated that the US is preparing to levy 25% on tariffs on a further $325bn of Chinese goods though this could take some weeks to roll out.  China does not however, appear unduly worried about talks extending further and may be content to play a waiting game.

Market reaction in Asia has been muted today and Chinese stocks have actually registered strong gains, reportedly due active buying by state backed funds, while the Chinese currency, CNY has registered gains.  The USD in contrast has been under broad pressure.

Overall however, markets will end the week bruised and in poor shape going into next week unless something major emerges from the last day of talks.   The CNY meanwhile, could end up weakening more sharply in the weeks ahead, acting as a shock absorber to the impact of higher tariffs on Chinese exports.

For more on this topic I will be appearing on CNBC Asia at 8.00am (Singapore Time) on Monday morning.

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