Central Banks and Governments Act To Combat COVID-19. Will It Be Enough?

In just a few weeks the world has changed dramatically.  What was initially seen as a virus localised in Asia has spread throughout the world with frightening speed.  The shocking destruction that COVID-19 has wrought globally in both health and economic terms will not fade quickly.  The virus is destroying complacency in all areas.  Total and complete lock down is becoming key to arrest the virus’ ascent, but many have yet to change their ways, believing that they will be ok.  How naïve is that!

Governments and central banks are finally coming to grips with the economic and health costs, but also the realisation that even in many developed countries, they are woefully unequipped to deal with the health crisis that is unfolding.  Global policy makers and the public at large has gone from a phase of denial, to outright panic and increasingly into fear, which then brings forth the most aggressive responses.

Unfortunately, the lack of global cohesion amongst policy makers has meant that responses have largely been piecemeal and uncoordinated.  Two of the biggest super powers, the US and China, have despite a now forgotten about Phase 1 trade deal, become increasingly acrimonious in their dealings with each other.  This, at a time when the world is looking for leadership, is proving to be major impediment to dealing with the effects of the virus.

It is not all bad news in term of co-ordination.  Central banks globally appear to be acting in unison, even if accidently, in terms of slashing interest rates, aggressively increasing quantitative easing, flushing the financial system with US dollar liquidity and easing some of the regulatory burden on banks.  This has helped to improve market functioning, which increasingly appeared to be breaking down over recent weeks.  It may not however, prevent further pressure on asset markets given the destruction in economic  activity globally.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.  Governments are now stepping up to the plate.  Massive fiscal stimulus plans are being ramped up around the world.  G7 economies have pledged to do “whatever is necessary” and to co-ordinate actions though much has been un coordinated.  US lawmakers are currently deliberating on a stimulus package worth over a $1tn though this could rise significantly in the weeks ahead, Germany is planning to create a EUR 500bn bailout fund, and the UK has announced an “unprecedented” multi billion pound package of measures.  These are but a few of the various stimulus measures being undertaken globally.

China has yet to announce a major stimulus package, but has instead opted for more incremental measures as its economy begins to recover following a major lockdown.  However, just as China’s supply constraints are easing, demand is weakening sharply as economies globally shut down.  The implication is that China’s recovery will not be a quick one either.  More stimulus is likely.  Recent reports suggest China will step up special bond issuance for infrastructure spending, but more is likely.

Overall, the economic shock is just beginning as the health shock is intensifying.  We will need to brace for more pain in the weeks and months ahead.  We can only hope that the measures announced so far and yet to be announced alongside with strict adherence to health recommendations will be sufficient to prevent deeper and longer lasting damage.  The jury is still out.

Waiting For The Fed To Come To The Rescue

COVID-2019 has in the mind of the market shifted from being a localized China and by extension Asia virus to a global phenomenon.  Asia went through fear and panic are few weeks ago while the world watched but did not react greatly as equities continued to rally to new highs outside Asia.  All this has changed dramatically over the last week or so, with markets initially spooked by the sharp rise in cases in Italy and Korea, and as the days have progressed, a sharp increase in the number of countries recording cases of infection.

The sell off in markets has been dramatic, even compared to previous routs in global equity markets.  It is unclear whether fading the declines is a good move given that the headline news flow continues to worsen, but investors are likely to try to look for opportunity in the malaise.   The fact that investors had become increasingly leveraged, positioning had increased significantly and valuations had become stretched, probably added more weight to the sell-off in equity markets and risk assets globally.  Conversely, G10 government bonds have rallied hard, especially US Treasuries as investors jump into safe havens.

Markets are attempting a tentative rally in risk assets today in the hope that major central banks and governments can come to the rescue.  The US Federal Reserve on Friday gave a strong signal that it is prepared to loosen policy if needed and markets have increasingly priced in easing , beginning with at least a 25bps rate cut this month (19 March).  The question is now not whether the Fed cuts, but will the cut be 25bp or 50bp.  Similarly, the Bank of Japan today indicated its readiness to support the economy if needed as have other central banks.

As the number of new infections outside of China is now increasing compared to new infections in China, and Chinese officials are promising both fiscal and monetary stimulus, China is no longer the main point of concern.  That said, there is no doubt that China’s economy is likely to tank this quarter; an early indication came from the sharp decline in China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index, which fell to a record low of 35.7 in February, deep into contraction territory.  The imponderable is how quickly the Chinese economy will get back on its feet.  The potential for “V” shape recovery is looking increasingly slim.

Volatility has also risen across markets, though it is notable that FX volatility has risen by far less than equity or interest rate volatility, suggesting scope for catch up.  Heightened expectations of Fed rate cuts, and sharp decline in yields, alongside fears that the number of virus cases in the US will accelerate, have combined to weigh on the US dollar, helping many currencies including the euro and emerging market currencies to make up some lost ground.  This is likely to continue in the short term, especially if overall market risk appetite shows some improvement.

Markets will likely struggle this week to find their feet.  As we’re seeing today there are attempts to buy into the fall at least in Asia.  Buyers will continue to run into bad news in terms of headlines, suggesting that it will not be an easy rise. Aside from watching coronavirus headlines there will be plenty of attention on the race to be the Democrat Party presidential candidate in the US, with the Super Tuesday primaries in focus.  UK/Europe trade talks will also garner attention as both sides try to hammer out a deal, while OPEC will meet to deliberate whether to implement output cuts to arrest the slide in oil prices.  On the data front, US ISM manufacturing and jobs data will be in focus.

US-China Phase 1, Now What?

Now that the long awaited Phase 1 deal has been signed between the US and China (significantly taking place in the White House) and details finally released (in a 94 page document) it’s worth asking whether much has actually changed.  After all, China still faces (high) tariffs on around two-thirds of its exports to the US while the deal does little to end Chinese state subsidies.  In return the US offers little aside from removing tariff increases.  Intellectual property transfer commitments agreed in the deal are mostly not new as China had already addressed most of these. 

Ironically the magnitude of Chinese purchases, ($77.7bn in manufactured goods, $32bn in agricultural goods, $52.4bn in energy and $37.9bn in services to Dec 2021) means that the Chinese State will have to be even more active in influencing its economy.  The reality is that to achieve this is going to be extremely difficult if not highly unlikely though this may ultimately not matter if China is seen to significantly increase its US purchases.

Looking ahead don’t expect China to be as agreeable on a Phase 2 deal; any such deal would touch on far more sensitive issues.  The likelihood of this being agreed and signed ahead of US elections or maybe at all, is low.  However, in the near term, the deal keeps the risk taps open and avoids any near-term escalation while President Trump walks away with another notch on his belt.  What it doesn’t do is stop any of the US non-tariff barriers, export controls etc, that will still hurt Chinese companies and push China to develop its own technology. Chinese growth will not get much of an uplift from the deal while markets have already largely priced it in.

The commitment from China on the Chinese yuan (CNY) looks vague (achieve market determined FX rate, strengthen underlying fundamentals, refrain from competitive devaluations, avoid large scale, persistent, one-sided intervention), but China will at least avoid any sharp devaluations (of the type experienced in mid-2015, Jan 16), not that they would want to do that again given the negative consequences on its markets/economy.  And as it is China has not been intervening significantly in FX markets for a long while so this should not be difficult either.

UK Elections and US-China trade: Removing Risk Factors

Following the euphoria over the decisive UK election result and the US/China “Phase 1” trade deal markets look primed to end the year on a positive footing.  Two of the major risk factors threatening to detail market sentiment into year end have at least been lifted.  However, some reality may begin to set in early into 2020, with investors recognizing that there are still major issues to be resolved both between the UK and Europe and between the US and China,

Although full details have yet to be revealed, Chinese officials will likely be relieved that the hike in tariffs scheduled for December 15 will now not go ahead. However, there are still questions on how China will ramp up its purchases of US agricultural goods anywhere near the $40-50bn mark that has been touted.

Also the dollar amount of the roll back in US tariffs is relatively small at around $9bn, which hardly moves the needle in terms of helping China’s growth prospects.  “The United States will be maintaining 25 percent tariffs on approximately $250 billion of Chinese imports, along with 7.5 percent tariffs on approximately $120 billion of Chinese imports.”  This still means that a substantial amount of tariffs on Chinese goods remains in place.

According to Trade Rep. Lighthizer, the deal will take effect 30 days after its signing, likely in early January. To sustain any improvement in sentiment around trade prospects there will need to be some concrete progress in removing previous tariffs as well as progress on structural issues (state subsides, technology transfers etc) in any Phase 2 or 3 dealss. The bottom line is that agreement in principle on “Phase 1” will need to be followed by further action soon, otherwise market sentiment will sour.

In the UK Prime Minister Johnson now has the votes to move forward with Brexit on January 31 but that will leave only 11 months to negotiate a deal with the EU. The transition period finishes at the end of 2020 unless of course there is an extension, something that Johnson has ruled out.  In the meantime the immediate focus will turn to the next Bank of England governor replacing Mark Carney.  This decision could take place this week.  Markets will also look to what fiscal steps the government will take in the weeks ahead.

GBP has rallied strongly over recent days and weeks, extending gains in the wake of the Conservative Party election win.  However, further gains will be harder to achieve given the challenges ahead.  UK equities have underperformed this year and are arguably relatively cheap from a valuation perspective, but further gains will also involve removing or at least reducing much of the uncertainty that has kept UK businesses from investing over recent months.  In the near term GBPUSD could struggle to break above 1.35 unless there is progress on the issues noted above.

Fed, ECB, UK elections In Focus

An event filled week lies ahead.  Several central bank decisions including the Federal Reserve FOMC (11th Dec), European Central Bank (ECB) (12 Dec) and Swiss National Bank (SNB)  (12 Dec) are on the calendar.  All of these major central banks are likely to leave policy unchanged and the meetings should prove to be uneventful.  Fed Chair Powell is likely to reiterate the Fed’s patient stance, with last Friday’s strong US November job report (payrolls rose 266k) effectively sealing the case for no change in policy at this meeting, even as a Phase 1 trade deal remains elusive.

Similarly recently firmer data in Europe have pushed back expectations of further ECB easing, though President Lagarde is likely to sound cautious highlighting her desire to maintain an accommodative monetary policy stance.  The picture is rather different for emerging market central banks this week, with policy easing likely from Turkey (12 Dec), Russia (13 Dec) and Brazil (12 Dec) while Philippines (12 Dec) is likely to keep policy unchanged.

UK general elections on Thursday will be closely watched, with GBP already having rallied above 1.30 vs USD as polls show a strong lead for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.  The main question is whether Johnson will have gained enough of a share of the vote to gain a majority, allowing him to push ahead with his Brexit plans, with Parliament voting to leave the European Union by Jan 31.

Polls may not be as accurate as assumed in the past given surprises over recent years including the Brexit vote itself, but the wide margin between the two parties highlights the relatively stronger position of the Conservatives going into the election.  Nonetheless, given that a lot is in the price already, the bigger (negative) reaction in GBP could come from a hung parliament or Labour win.

This week is also crunch time for a decision on the threatened December 15 tariffs on China.  As previously noted there is little sign of any deal on any Phase 1 trade deal.  It appears that issues such as the amount of purchases of US goods by China remain unresolved.  Recent comments by President Trump suggest that he is prepared to delay a deal even as far as past the US elections in November 2020.

Whether this is tactic to force China to agree on a deal or a real desire not to rush a deal is difficult to determine, but it seems as though Phase 1 will deal will not be signed this year given the limited time to do so.  December 15 tariffs could be delayed but this is also not guaranteed.  President Trump’s attention will also partly be on the potential for an impeachement vote in the House this week.

China Data Fuels A Good Start To The Week

Better than expected outcomes for China’s manufacturing purchasing managers indices (PMIs) in November, with the official PMI moving back above 50 into expansion territory and the Caixin PMI also surprising on the upside gave markets some fuel for a positive start to the week.   The data suggest that China’s manufacturing sector has found some respite, but the bounce may have been due to temporary factors, rather than a sustainable improvement in manufacturing conditions.  Indeed much going forward will depend on the outcome of US-China trade talks, initially on whether a phase 1 deal can be agreed upon any time soon.

News on the trade war front shows little sign of improvement at this stage, with reports that a US-China trade deal is now “stalled” due to the Hong Kong legislation passed by President Trump last week as well as reports that China wants a roll back in previous tariffs before any deal can be signed.  Nonetheless, while a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal by year end is increasingly moving out of the picture, markets appear to be sanguine about it, with risk assets shrugging off trade doubts for now.  Whether the good mood can continue will depend on a slate of data releases over the days ahead.

Following China’s PMIs, the US November ISM manufacturing survey will be released later today.  US manufacturing sentiment has come under growing pressure even as other sectors of the economy have shown resilience.  Another below 50 (contractionary) outcome is likely.  The other key release in the US this week is the November jobs report, for which the consensus is looking for a 188k increase in jobs, unemployment rate remaining at 3.6% and average earnings rising by 0.3% m/m. Such an outcome will be greeted positively by markets, likely extending the positive drum beat for equities and risk assets into next week.

There are also several central bank decisions worth highlighting this week including in Australia, Canada and India.  Both the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and Bank of Canada (BoC) are likely to keep monetary policy unchanged, while the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is likely to cut its policy rate by 25bps to combat a worsening growth outlook.  Indeed, Q3 GDP data released last week revealed the sixth sequential weakening in India’s growth rate, with growth coming in at a relatively weak 4.5% y/y. Despite a recent food price induced spike in inflation the RBI is likely to focus on the weaker growth trajectory in cutting rates.

A Lot Of Moving Parts

There are lot of moving parts driving market sentiment at present.  US economic news has helped to buoy markets this week after US Q3 GDP was revised higher in its second estimate, to 2.1% q/q while October durable goods orders came in stronger than expected.  However, the news that President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act after almost unanimous passage in Congress, has fueled some cautious.  Investors now await any retaliation from China and whether the Bill will get in the way of a Phase 1 trade deal.

On the trade front both the US and Chinese governments have said that there are closing in on a Phase 1 deal but as yet there has been no confirmation, with less and less time to agree a deal before the end of the year and more importantly before the next phase of tariffs kicks in on December 15.  One sticking point between the two sides appears to be what extent will the US administration roll back tariffs, with China likely wanting not only the tariffs scheduled to be implemented in mid-December to be rolled back but also the ones implemented in August.

Such a roll back in tariffs would be take place in exchange for increased Chinese purchases of US goods and perhaps stricter intellectual property regulations, but more structural issues such as state subsidies, technology transfers etc may be put back to later deals.  In the meantime markets do not appear overly concerned, with risk assets and equities in particular continuing to rally and volatility continuing to decline.  If there is no deal announced in the weeks ahead, markets could face a set back, but if agreement on a deal is to be merely pushed back into Q1 2020, the damage will be limited.

After its sharp fall over October the US dollar has gradually clawed back ground over recent weeks, helped by US asset market outperformance and consequently strong inflows into US assets.  As we move towards the end of the year it appears that the USD will maintain its top spot, much to the chagrin of the US administration and their preference for a weaker USD.

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