All Eyes On US/China Trade Talks

A major focus for markets next weeks is the US/China trade talks in Washington.  After the US reportedly turned down an offer of preparatory talks this week talks will begin on Monday, with China’s Vice Commerce Minister, Vice Finance Minister and central bank, PBoC governor.

It is unclear who on the US side they will meet, but the idea is to prepare the ground for the heavy weight talks between US Trade Representative Lighthizer, US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and China’s top economic official Liu He, from Jan 30 to 31.

Both sides need a win on trade and markets are pinning their hopes on some form of a deal. The reality is that they are still very far apart on a number of issues.  As highlighted by US commerce secretary Ross, a trade deal is “miles and miles” away.

The easier issues on the table are increased purchases of US goods by China, something that China has already said they will do, in order to help reduce the record Chinese trade surplus with the US.  The tougher issues are more structural, including forced technology transfers, state subsidies, discrimination against foreign companies, regulations on intellectual property etc.

Not only is the US determined to gain China’s agreement on the above issues, but is also looking to find ways to ensure compliance monitoring.  However, China does not believe that foreign companies are transferring technology to Chinese companies, while they have already offered measures to increase access to foreign investors.  Overall, this means there is little room for negotiation.

In any case with just over a month left before the March 1 deadline that President Trump has set before he imposes increased tariffs of 25% on around half of Chinese exports to the US, there is little time to thrash out a deal on the key structural issues that would likely satisfy the US administration.

The likelihood is that negotiations will not be completed, especially on structural issues, leaving markets very little to be excited about.  While both sides may leave the talks, claiming a degree of progress, this will not be sufficient to allay concerns.  Risk assets will look vulnerable against this background.

 

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Positive Start To The Week

Markets start this week on a positive note in the wake of 1) the strong US December jobs report, which revealed a larger than expected increase in non-farm payrolls of 312k and decent growth in average hourly earnings of 0.4% m/m, 2) positive comments by Fed Chairman Powell on the US economy, while noting that the Fed will be patient if needed and 3) the 1% banks’ reserve requirement (RRR) cut by the PBoC in China.   Powell’s comments will also weigh on the USD this week against the background of long USD positioning, helping EM currencies.  He speaks again on Thursday.

Events this week will be key in determining the tone for markets further out, however.  In the UK parliament returns after its holiday break, with debate on the “meaningful vote” taking place over the week and markets will watch for any sign that May’s proposed deal gains traction.  The FT reports that she is facing a fresh challenge, with senior MPs signing up to block the government from implementing no-deal measures with parliament’s consent. x

China’s RRR cut (announced on Friday) will help to put a floor under risk sentiment.  The total 1% easing will release RMB 800 bn of liquidity, according to the PBoC, ahead of the Chinese New Year. A cut was widely expected in the wake of weak data and strongly hinted at by Premier Li prior to the PBoC announcement. The PBoC already cut the RRRs four times in 2018, and more should be expected to come, including MLF and other targeted easing.

Focus will centre on trade talks between US and Chinese officials beginning today.   Both sides are under pressure to arrive at a deal in the wake of pressure on US asset markets and weakening Chinese growth, but the differences between the two sides remain large. The US delegation will be led by Jeff Gerrish, the deputy trade representative and he is joined by officials from the agriculture, energy and treasury departments, suggesting that talks will centre on more detailed content.

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.

Central Banks Galore

Although markets are quietening down and liquidity is thinning ahead of the holidays there are still a few important and potentially market moving events this week.   These include several central bank meetings, with the Fed FOMC at the top of the pile on Wednesday.  The Fed is widely expected to hike by 25bp to between 2.25% and 2.50% and remove any remaining forward guidance.

A few weeks ago there was little doubt that the Fed would hike rates this month, but since then it has looked like less of a done deal.  Dovish comments from Fed officials suggest that there will be a lot of attention on Fed Chairman Powell’s press conference, especially following his recent comments that interest rates are “just below neutral”.   Although the Fed is likely to hike, it is likely to be seen as a dovish hike, which ought to leave the USD without much support.

In Asia there are three central bank meetings in focus.  On Wednesday the Bank of Thailand (BoT) is likely to hike its benchmark by 25bps to 1.75%, largely due to financial imbalances (household debt and bad loans) rather than inflation concerns.  On Thursday Taiwan’s central bank meeting (CBC) is likely to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 1.375%, with low and declining inflation, suggesting the long held status quo will be maintained.

Also on Thursday I expect no change in policy by Bank Indonesia. Inflation is clearly non-threatening from BI’s perspective and unless the IDR weakens anew, BI will increasingly be in a position to keep its powder dry. Elsewhere in Asia, the Bank of Japan will be in focus.  No change in policy is widely expected on Thursday, with the central bank still well away from any tightening in policy given still low inflation.

Not much good news

There are a plethora of issues weighing on asset markets though sentiment has improved slightly today.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend and a revision lower to Japanese GDP data yesterday added to growing global growth concerns, against the background of waning hopes of a resolution to the US-China trade war.

US administration comments that there was a hard deadline for trade talks have not helped sentiment either.  News today that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and US Trade Rep Lighthizer on a timetable and road map on trade talks provided some relief, however.

In the US, growth expectations are undergoing a shift and talk of a Fed pause is growing.  This would be considered as good news for EM if it wasn’t for the fact that a pause could be due to US growth concerns rather than any sense that the Fed was approaching its terminal rate.  US November CPI, retail sales, and industrial production data will give more clues, but I still think the Fed policy rates next week.

In the UK, Brexit worries have intensified following the decision by Prime Minister May to the delay the vote on a deal in parliament given she would most likely would have faced a defeat had it gone ahead.  May will now go on a tour of European capitals to try to improve the Brexit deal but prospects don’t look good, especially as European Council president Tusk has already ruled out any negotiation of the deal and in particular the Irish backstop.

GBP was pummeled as a result of the delay and will continue to struggle in the short term given the lack visibility.  A revised deal appears difficult while a hard Brexit and even a new referendum are all on the table.

US-China trade tensions show little sign of ending

Increasing tensions at the APEC summit between the US and China, which resulted in the failure to issue a joint communique (for the first time in APEC’s 29 year history) highlight the risks to any agreement at the G20 summit at the end of this month.   Consequently the chances of US tariffs on $250bn of Chinese goods rising from 10% to 25% in the new year remain  high as does the risks of tariffs on the remaining $267bn of goods exported to the US from China.  Contentious issues such as forced technology transfers remain a key stumbling block.

As the Trump-Xi meeting at the G20 leaders summit approaches, hopes of an agreement will grow, but as the APEC summit showed, there are still plenty of issues to negotiate.  US officials feel that China has not gone far enough to alleviate their concerns, especially on the topic of technology, with the hawks in the US administration likely to continue to maintain pressure on China to do more.  As it stands, prospects of a deal do not look good, suggesting that the trade war will intensify in the months ahead.

Despite all of this, the CNY CFETS trade weighted index has been remarkably stable and China’s focus on financial stability may continue as China avoids provoking the US and tries to limit the risks of intensifying capital outflows.  China may be wary of allowing a repeat of the drop in CNY that took place in June and July this year, for fear of fuelling an increase in domestic capital outflows.  However, if the USD strengthens further in broad terms, a break of USDCNY 7.00 is inevitable soon, even with a stable trade weighted currency.

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