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.

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Waiting For US Jobs Data

Ahead of the US jobs report later today and following a lack of leads from US markets after the 4th July Independence Day holiday, markets are likely to tread water, at least until the employment report is released.  However, there are plenty of factors lurking in the background including the ongoing US-China trade war, US-Iran geopolitical tensions, and growing trade spat between Korea and Japan.

Markets continue to be supported by expectations of monetary easing globally.  This week, bond markets have continued to rally, helped by President Trump’s nomination of July Shelton and Christopher Waller for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, both of which are considered dovish.  Separately, markets applauded the backing of Christine Lagarde to lead the European Central Bank after weeks of wrangling by European leaders.

Immediate attention will be on the US June jobs data.  Market expectations are for a 160,000 increase in non-farm payrolls, unemployment rate at 3.6% and average earnings growth of 0.3% compared to the previous month, 3.2% compared to the year earlier.  Anything much worse, for example an outcome below 100k would likely lead to an intensification of expectations that the Fed FOMC will cut by as much as 50 basis points later this month.  An outcome around consensus would likely result in a 25bp easing by the Fed FOMC.

Separately trade tensions between Japan and Korea have intensified. Japan is implementing restrictions on exports to Korea of chemicals essential for chip making. Japan is Korea’s fourth largest export market. The new approval process required by Japanese exporters of three semiconductor industry chemicals will hit Korea’s tech industry at a time when it is already suffering.  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.

G20, Fed and Iran

Market attention this week will focus on Fed speakers, the G20 meeting and tensions between the US and Iran.  Here are my thoughts on all three:

Federal Reserve Chairman Powell and Vice Chair Williams are both scheduled to speak tomorrow.  Investors will be looking for any further clues on the path, timing and magnitude of Fed interest rates in the months ahead and whether they validate market expectations of easing at the July FOMC meeting.   Markets are already pricing in several cuts and a result the USD has weakened sharply over recent months, suggesting that the bar to an even more dovish stance is high.  Nonetheless, the Fed is at least likely to deliver a 25bp rate cut at the July meeting followed by at least one or two further hikes this year.

The main event this week (Fri-Sat) is the G20 meeting in Japan and in particular the potential meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi on the sidelines.  Expectations/optimism towards some form of progress on trade talks appears high.  Markets are set to remain upbeat heading into the G20, suggesting that risk assets will maintain their rally this week, which will bode well for equities. However, the reality is that the gap between both sides remain wide and there may be some positive noises emanating from the G20 on trade, concrete progress is likely to be limited.

Trump and Xi are likely to discuss a range of issues, with trade teams from both sides preparing the topics for discussion, after talks broke down last month.  It is likely that both Trump and Xi will agree to continue more formal talks, with both leaders sounding positive in the run up to the G20.  However, the threat of additional 25% US tariffs on the remaining $300bn of Chinese exports to the US, remains in place and it is unlikely that this will be taken off the table without some major concessions from China.  As I’ve previously stated it could take months before a concrete deal is agreed upon.  In the meantime global trade will continue to deteriorate.

Elsewhere geopolitical tensions remain in focus as President Trump threatens Iran with additional sanctions in an effort to force Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear accord, as early as today. This follows Trump’s decision to call off planned air strikes in response to Iran’s shooting down of an unmanned drone.  Iranian oil exports have plunged as a result of sanctions and oil prices continue to react, rallying by around 8.7% in just under a week.  Markets will remain nervous over the risks of any further escalation, leaving oil prices susceptible to a further push higher.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Trump Threatens Tariffs Escalation

A trade deal between US and China appeared close to being agreed over recent weeks and markets had become rather sanguine about the issue. Indeed headlines over recent weeks had been encouraging, with both sides sounding conciliatory, and progress noted even on structural issues (technology theft, IP transfers, state subsidies, monitoring etc).  Against this background the tweets by President Trump yesterday that he may increase tariffs on $200bn of Chinese imports to 25% from 10% on Friday and add another $325bn to goods that are not currently covered “shortly”, were all the more disturbing. Maybe such comments should not be so surprising, however.

The tweets need to be put into perspective. There may be an element of posturing from. It fits Trump’s style of deal making.  In this case it appears that Trump and the China hawks in his administration are frustrated with the time taken to achieve a deal. Trump may also be emboldened to take a tougher stance by the resilience of the US economy, strength of US equity markets and limited impact on the US economy from current tariffs, though this would surely change if tariffs were ramped up. Trump may feel that such as gamble is worth it to take the deal across the line.

China’s reaction has been muted so far and talks this week in Washington may still be on, albeit with some delay.  Assuming that discussions do take place Trump may feel that he has the stronger hand especially as there is broad political and public support for a strong stance on China. He may feel that if he agrees to a deal too easily, he could lose support from his core supporters, hence he is now doubling down on his stance. Pressure on China to agree on a deal sooner rather than later has clearly intensified as a consequence, but I would still take earlier statements that both sides are moving closer to a deal at face value.

Admittedly the stakes are higher now, but I would not be surprised if at some point in the talks, assuming they take place, the US administration declares that progress is being made and that tariff escalation is once again delayed. After all, that’s what has happened previously. Markets would be relieved of course, and the consequences of failure would be higher given the new tariffs at stake, but at least it would buy more time for China to avoid facing a ramp up in tariffs.

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