Awaiting More US Tariffs And China Retaliation

Weekend developments in the trade war included China’s denial that they had reneged on any prior agreements, contrary to what the US administration has said as a rationale for ratcheting up tariffs on China.  In fact, China’s vice-minister Liu He said that such changes (to the draft) were “natural”.  He also said the remaining differences were “matters of principle”,  which implies that China will not make concessions on such some key structural issues.  This does not bode well for a quick agreement.

Meanwhile Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow suggested that Trump and China’s President Xi could meet at the G20 meeting at the end of June. This offers a glimmer of hope but in reality such a meeting would achieve little without any agreement on substantive issues, which appears a long way off.  Markets now await details from the US administration on tariffs on a further $325bn of Chinese exports to the US effectively covering all Chinese exports to the US.

China has promised retaliation and we could see them outline further tariffs on US exports in the next couple of days as well as the possible introduction of non-tariff barriers, making life harder for US companies in China.  The bottom line is that any deal now seems far off while the risk of further escalation on both sides has risen.  Global markets are increasingly taking fright as a result, especially emerging market assets.

There are no further negotiations scheduled between the US and China though Kudlow has said that China has invited Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and trade representative Lighthizer to Beijing for further talks.  Given that Trump now appears to have a unified administration as well as many Republicans and Democrats behind him while China is digging its heels in this, don’t expect a resolution anytime soon.

China’s currency CNY is facing growing pressure as the US-China trade war escalates.   The CNY CFETS index has weakened by around 1% in just over a week (ie CNY has depreciated relative to its trading partners) and is now at its weakest since 20 Feb 19.  While not weaponising the currency, there’s every chance that China will manage CNY depreciation to help compensate Chinese exporters for the pressure faced from higher tariffs (as appeared to take place last summer). Expect more pain ahead.

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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.

 

Chinese renminbi (CNY) set to stay firm amid trade talks

Since the beginning of November, the onshore CNY and offshore CNH have strengthened by around 3.5% versus USD. Both are now trading at pivotal levels close to their 200 day moving averages. Their appreciation cannot be solely attributed to USD weakness, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index appreciating by around 1.8% over same period. In other words China’s currency has outperformed many of its trading partners.

The relative strength of the CNY may be an effort by China to placate the US authorities ahead of trade talks. Indeed according to my estimate China has been selling USDCNY over the last few months, albeit not in large amounts. Interestingly China has not used the counter cyclical factor to push CNY lower as fixings have been stronger than market estimates only around 50% of the time over the last 3 months.

Much of the strengthening in the CNY move came after the US administration announced a pause in the trade war at the start of December, with a delay in the planned increase in tariffs from 10% to 25% on around half of Chinese exports to the US. The implication is that China does not want to antagonise the US administration with CNY weakness, despite the fact that recent Chinese trade numbers have been awful.

China had given itself some room to allow CNY appreciation by previously letting the currency fall by around 5.8% in trade weighted terms (from around 19 June 18 to end July 18) in the wake of the imposition of US tariffs. Its appreciation over recent weeks looks modest set against this background. As such CNY is likely to maintain a firm tone around the trade talks this week.

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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