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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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.

What to look for from China this week

Market attention returns to China this week, with markets there opening after Chinese New Year Holidays.  US/China trade talks will dominate attention, with China’s Vice Premier Lie Hu meeting with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Trade Representative Lighthizer in Beijing.  Tariffs are scheduled to be raised from 10% to 25% on $200bn worth of Chinese exports to the US on March 2.  If talks do not succeed it will act as another blow to the world economy.

The fact that US President Trump has said that he won’t meet China’s President Xi Jinping before March 1 suggests elevated risks of a no deal though both sides.  Moreover, US officials will be wary of being seen to give in to China given the broad based domestic support for a strong stance against China, suggesting that they will maintain a tough approach.  Even so, there is a huge incentive to arrive at a deal of sorts even if structural issues are left on the back burner.

At a time of slowing global growth and heightened trade tensions China’s January trade report will also be scrutinised this week.  Market expectations look for a sizeable 10.3% y/y drop in imports and a 3.3% y/y fall in exports.   The risks on imports in particular are skewed to the downside given the weakness in exports data from some of China’s trading partners in the region including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam.  A weak outcome will result in a further intensification of concerns about China’s economy.

Another focal point is the direction of China’s currency (CNY).  As trade talks continue this week it is likely that China maintains a relatively stronger currency stance via stronger CNY fixings versus USD and stronger trade weighted (CFETS CNY nominal effective exchange rate).  As it is the CFETS index is currently around its highest level in 7 months.  Of course, if trade talks fail this could easily reverse as China retaliates to an increase in US tariffs.

 

FX ‘Flash Crash’

Happy New Year! What a start its been so far.  Weak Chinese data kicked off the year yesterday, with a manufacturing sentiment gauge, the Caixin purchasing manager’s index (PMI), falling into contraction territory for the first time in 19 months, another sign of slowing growth in China’s economy.  This was echoed by other manufacturing PMIs, especially those of trade orientated countries in Asia.   Taking a look at global emerging market PMIs reveals a picture of broadly slowing growth.

Lack of progress on the trade front despite positive noises from both the US and China, and no sign of an ending of the US government shut down are similarly weighing on sentiment as are concerns about slowing US economic growth and of course Fed rate hikes.  The latest contributor to market angst is the lowering of Apple’s revenue outlook, with the company now expecting sales of around $84bn in the quarter ending Dec 29 from earlier estimates of $89bn to $93bn.

All of this and thin liquidity, with a Japanese holiday today and many market participants not back from holidays, contributed to very sharp moves in FX markets.  The biggest mover was the JPY, which surged, leading to an appreciation of around 7.7% versus the AUD at one point and strong gains against other currencies.  Some have attributed algorithmic platform pricing to the sharp FX moves today, but whatever the reason, it shows that markets are on edge.

Although US equity markets closed in positive territory yesterday (barely), the above factors suggest another day in the red for equity markets and risk assets today.  While the JPY has retraced some its sharp gains, it and other safe haven assets such as CHF and US Treasuries are likely to find firm demand in the current environment.   Although I would not suggest extrapolating early year trading too far into the future, the volatility in the first two trading days of the year will be concerning for investors after a painful 2018. More pain in the weeks ahead should not be ruled out.

 

Looking For The Silver Lining

As the end of the year approaches it would take a minor miracle of sorts to turn around a dismal performance for equity markets in December.   The S&P 500 has fallen by just over 12% year to date, but this performance is somewhat better than that of equity markets elsewhere around the world.  Meanwhile 10 year US Treasury yields have dropped by over 53 basis points from their high in early November.

A host of factors are weighing on markets including the US government shutdown, President Trump’s criticism of Fed policy, ongoing trade concerns, worries about a loss of US growth momentum, slowing Chinese growth, higher US rates, etc, etc.   The fact that the Fed maintained its stance towards hiking rates and balance sheet contraction at the last FOMC meeting has also weighed on markets.

A statement from US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin attempting to reassure markets about liquidity conditions among US banks didn’t help matters, especially as liquidity concerns were among the least of market concerns.  Drawing attention to liquidity may have only moved it higher up the list of focal points for markets.

The other major mover is oil prices, which have dropped even more sharply than other asset classes.  Brent crude has dropped by over 40% since its high on 3 October 2018.   This has helped to dampen inflationary expectations as well as helping large oil importers such as India.  However, while part of the reason for its drop has been still robust supply, worries about global growth are also weighing on the outlook for oil.

But its not all bad news and markets should look at the silver lining on the dark clouds overhanging markets.  The Fed has become somewhat more dovish in its rhetoric and its forecasts for further rate hikes.  US growth data is not weak and there is still sufficient stimulus in the pipeline to keep the economy on a reasonably firm growth path in the next few months.  Separately lower oil is a positive for global growth.

There are also constructive signs on the trade front, with both US and China appearing to show more willingness to arrive at a deal.  In particular, China appears to be backing down on its technology advancement that as core to its “Made In China 2025” policy. This is something that it at the core of US administration hawks’ demands and any sign of appeasement on this front could bode well for an eventual deal.

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.

Central banks in focus this week

Several central bank decisions are on tap this week including Japan (BoJ), Switzerland (SNB), Norway (Norges Bank), Brazil (BCB) and Thailand (BoT).  Among these only the Norges Bank looks likely to hike rates.

US data is largely second tier this week, with August housing data due for release.  After a run of weak readings a bounce back in starts and existing home sales is expected.   RBA minutes in Australia and NZ Q2 macro data are also in focus.

Political events will garner most attention, with the delayed announcement on China tariffs ($200bn) possible as early as today after being delayed due to the consideration of revisions raised via public comment.  Another twist in the saga is that China is considering declining the US offer of trade talks given the recent Trump threat of fresh tariffs (WSJ).

Other political events include Japan’s LDP election and US trade negotiations (assuming China participates) at the end of the week.   A few Brexit events this week include the General Affairs Council and Informal EU Summit.

 

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