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.

Brexit Developments Sharply In Focus

Two major market risks have been sidelined, though admittedly not taken off the table.  Firstly the prospects of an intensification of the US-China trade war appears to have diminished and secondly the risks of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal have lessened.  This presents a calmer and less volatile backdrop for markets even as global growth continues to remain under pressure.  Separately markets are hoping and expecting for some icing on the cake in the form of Fed easing later this month. As long as US Q3 earnings are not too bad, this suggests a period of calm ahead.

US-China trade developments are likely to take a back seat in the run up to the APEC meeting on 16-17 November in Chile where a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal may be signed by both US and Chinese leaders.  Talks rumbling in the background appear to progressing well, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Trade Representative Lighthizer scheduled to speak to China’s Vice Premier Liu He this week by phone.  Markets will carefully eye what the prospects are for a delay of the $156bn of US tariffs on China that are due to take effect on December 15.

Brexit developments will move sharply back into focus today, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to make a fresh attempt at passing a ‘meaningful vote’ today or gaining a majority in a vote on legislation implementing the deal tomorrow.  This follows having to jettison a vote on Saturday and being forced to write to the EU requesting a three-month delay to the Article 50 exit process.  The government thinks it has the number of votes necessary to pass the vote and the fact that GBP has only lost a little ground today (at the time of writing) suggests that markets think the chances are high.

Other than this, the European Central Bank meeting on Thursday will garner attention although President Draghi is unlikely to offer any further changes in policy, having come under criticism from hawks in the ECB governing council who opposed the renewed bond buying from the ECB.  Expect Draghi to maintain a dovish stance at this meeting.  Other central banks in focus this week include Norway, Sweden, Turkey and Indonesia.  The former two are likely to leave policy unchanged while both Turkey and Indonesia are likely to ease policy.

 

Limited Relief

Now that the dust has settled on the US-China limited ‘Phase 1’ deal formulated at the end of last week markets can look to other events/data this week.  Prominent among these are Brexit discussions, which look as though they are carrying over to today as discussions towards a final deal intensify (more on this in another post).  However, casting a shadow over markets today is the news that China has threatened retaliation against the US after the House of Representatives passed a bill on reviewing the preferential treatment for HK.

Stepping back, regarding the trade deal it was probably the easiest one on the table from China’s perspective.  The US agreed to hold back on raising tariffs on $250bn of Chinese goods while China agreed to increase agricultural purchases and give limited access to its financial markets.

However, it was no “love fest”.  It is very narrowly focused, doesn’t role back previous tariffs, does little to change the growth narrative, nor does it deal with the tougher structural issues and enforcement mechanisms etc.  It is also vague on the Chinese currency, renminbi. In any case China had already highlighted and strongly hinted at increased agricultural purchases over recent weeks

Yes, there was some vague commitment to address intellectual property (IP) issues, something that hawks in the US administration have been pushing for but this is akin to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. China has already tightened up IP regulations at home and in fact is now keen to protect its own IP so it has a big incentive to tighten up IP rules.

The US administration was probably more than happy to avoid another increase in tariffs on China given the desire not to fuel more market instability, growing focus on elections next year and to show some form of progress to take the attention away from the impeachment inquiries.  Implementation of the next tariffs round on December 15 is unclear but given the above it could be delayed or scrapped.  That would be more substantial progress.

Over the short term markets will be relieved that tensions on trade are not worsening though the passage of the bill on Hong Kong by the US House of Representatives threatens to increase tensions on another front.  The bottom line is that there is some breathing space on the trade front, with the President Trump stating that it may take up to five weeks to complete the deal.  Some form of signing may take place at the Apec Summit in Chile in mid-November.

US-China Trade Talk Hopes Begin To Fade

Attention this week will be very much centered on a few key events, most prominent of which is US-China trade talks scheduled to begin on Thursday in Washington.   A speech by Fed Chair Powell at the annual NABE conference tomorrow and Fed FOMC minutes  will also garner plenty of attention for clues to the Fed FOMC meeting at the end of this month.   In the UK, as the end October deadline approaches attention turns to whether Prime Minister Johnson can seal a deal with European officials.

Starting with US-China trade talks, reports (Bloomberg) today suggest that China is unwilling to agree to a comprehensive trade deal with the Trump administration.   The report states that senior Chinese officials have indicated that the range of topics they are willing to discuss has narrowed considerably.  The implication is that major structural issues such as intellectual property theft, technology transfers, state subsidies, and other issues are off the table, limiting the scope of any agreement emerging from meetings this week.   Markets have unsurprisingly reacted negatively to the reports.

If China is indeed unwilling to enter into a broader trade discussion, prospects for even an interim trade deal look slim especially considering that US officials were last week talking down the prospects of a narrow deal.  Markets have been pinning their hopes on some progress on trade talks and any failure to advance talks this week will cast a heavy shadow over markets in the days ahead.

Separately European leaders appear to have poured cold water on the UK government’s proposals for a deal to end the Brexit impasse.  The main sticking point is the removal of the Irish backstop and proposal to implement a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.  If no deal is reached an extension seems likely given the passage of the Benn Act, which requires the PM to ask the EU for a delay if parliamentary approval has not been given to a withdrawal agreement or a no deal exit.  Nonetheless, Johnson continues to warn the EU that he will take the UK out of Europe at the end of October. The uncertainty is unsurprisingly once again hurting the pound.

In  the US the release of US September CPI, speech by Fed Chair Powell and FOMC minutes will provide further clues to the Fed’s thinking ahead of the FOMC meeting this month.  Market pricing for an October rate cut increased in the wake of a recent run of weaker data (especially the September ISM surveys, which weakened) though the September jobs report (non farm payrolls increased by 136k while the unemployment rate fell to a record low of 3.5%) released at the end of last week did not provide further ammunition for those expecting a more aggressive Fed rate cut.  A 25bp cut sees likely at the October meeting.

 

 

Bumpy Ride Ahead

Just as it looked as though there was some hope of stabilisation in global economic conditions, the September US ISM (Institute of Supply Management) Index released on Monday was not only weak but it was a lot worse than expected at 47.8 (below 50 means contraction).  Markets clearly took fright, with the sell off in stocks intensifying yesterday in the wake of the US ADP jobs report for September, which recorded an increase of 135k jobs by private sector employers, its weakest reading in three months.

This all sets up for a nervous wait ahead of tomorrow’s September jobs report in which markets will be on the look out for any slowing in nonfarm payrolls and/or increase in the unemployment rate.  The consensus expectation is for a 148k increase in payrolls in September and for the unemployment rate to remain at 3.7%, but risks of a weaker outcome have grown.  The US dollar has also come under pressure as US economic risks increase.

Rising geopolitical risks are adding to the market malaise, with the impeachment enquiry into President Trump intensifying and risks of a hard Brexit in the UK remaining elevated.  On the latte front UK Prime Minister Johnson published his plans for a Brexit strategy yesterday replacing Theresa May’s “backstop” plan with two new borders for Northern Ireland.

If the proposal isn’t agreed with the EU, there is a strong chance that Johnson will be forced to seek another extension to Article 50 from the end of October, prolonging the three and a half years of uncertainty that the UK has gone through.  GBP didn’t react much to the new plan, and surprisingly did not fall despite the sharp sell off in UK equities yesterday, with the FTSE falling by over 3%.

The fact that the US has now been given the green light to impose tariffs on EU goods after the EU lost a World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling adds a further dimension to the trade war engulfing economies globally.  The US administration will now move ahead to impose 25% tariffs on a range of imports from the EU, with the tariffs implementation likely to compound global growth fears.  If the EU wins a similar case early next year, expect to see an onslaught of EU tariffs on EU imports of US goods.

This is taking place just as hopes of progress in trade talks between the US and China in talks scheduled for next week have grown.  But even these talks are unlikely to be smooth given the array of structural issues that remain unresolved including technology transfers, Chinese state subsidies, accusations of IP theft, etc.  Additionally, the fact that the US administration has reportedly discussed adding financial restrictions on Chinese access to US capital suggests another front in the trade way may be about to open up.

The bottom line is that there is a host of factors weighing on markets at present and adding to global uncertainty, none of which are likely to go away soon.  Now that fears about the US economy are also intensifying suggests that there is nowhere to hide in the current malaise, implying that risk assets are in for a bumpy ride in the weeks ahead while market volatility is likely to increase.

 

 

 

 

Oil Surges, Central Banks Galore

Oil prices jumped following drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities over the weekend.  Oil rose by around 20% to just shy of $72, before halving its gain later.  Even after failing to hold onto initial gains the rise in oil prices still marks one if its biggest one day gains.  Concerns about reduced oil supply have risen as a result of the attacks as they could reduce Saudi oil production for a prolonged period, with around 5% of global oil supply impacted.  Additionally the attacks could raise geopolitical tensions in the region.

As markets digest the impact of the drone attacks, there will also be several central bank decisions globally to focus on this week.  The main event is the Fed FOMC meeting mid-week, where a 25bp cut is largely priced in by the market.  Given that a rate cut is well flagged markets will pay close attention to the Fed’s summary of economic projections, in particular the Fed’s dot plot.  It seems unlikely that Fed Chair Powell is going to sound too dovish, with little to suggest that the Fed is on path for a more aggressive easing path.

Another major central bank meeting this week is the Bank of Japan (BoJ) on Thursday.  While a policy move by the BoJ at is unlikely this week BoJ policy makers have sounded more open to easing.  A consumption tax hike planned for next month together with a strong JPY have increased the pressure for the BoJ to act. Separately easier policy from other major central banks amid slowing global growth are unlikely be ignored.  However, policy is already ultra- easy and the BoJ remains cognisant of the adverse secondary impact of policy on Japanese Banks.

The Bank of England deliberates on policy this week too but it seems highly unlikely that they would adjust policy given all the uncertainties on how Brexit developments will pan out.  Until there is some clarity, the BoE is likely to remain firmly on hold, with the base rate remaining at 0.75%.  GBP has rallied over recent weeks as markets have stepped back from expectations of a hard Brexit, but this does not mean that a deal is any closer than it has been over the past months.  Elsewhere the SNB in Switzerland and Norges Bank in Norway are also expected to keep policy rates on hold this week.

Several emerging markets central banks will also deliberate on policy this week including in Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Taiwan.  The consensus (Bloomberg) expects a 50bp rate cut in Brazil, no change in South Africa and Taiwan and a 25bp rate cut in Indonesia.  Overall many emerging markets continue to ease policy amid slowing growth, lower US policy rates and declining inflation pressures.

 

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