‘Beautiful’ Letter Fails To Stop Tariffs

At 12.01 EST the US escalated tariffs on China, following up on US President Trump’s tweets last weekend.  The tariffs escalation follows what the US administration says was backtracking by China on a number of structural issues in an earlier draft of a trade agreement.   Markets had been nervously anticipating this escalation all week, but also hoping that it could be avoided in some way.

A day of talks in Washington between Chinese officials led by Chinese vice-minister Liu He and US officials including US Trade Representative Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin failed to lead to any agreements or even any sign of progress despite President’s Trump’s tweeting that he received a “beautiful” letter from Chinese President Xi.

Talks are set to resume later but chances of any breakthrough appear slim.  China appears to have taken a harder line on subordinating to some of the US demands for structural changes and don’t appear to have been too phased by the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods from 10 to 25%.  The US side on the other hand appear to be taking a tough stance emboldened by the strength of the economy.

China has vowed retaliation but at the time of writing has not outlined any plans for any reciprocal tariffs.  Trump has also stated that the US is preparing to levy 25% on tariffs on a further $325bn of Chinese goods though this could take some weeks to roll out.  China does not however, appear unduly worried about talks extending further and may be content to play a waiting game.

Market reaction in Asia has been muted today and Chinese stocks have actually registered strong gains, reportedly due active buying by state backed funds, while the Chinese currency, CNY has registered gains.  The USD in contrast has been under broad pressure.

Overall however, markets will end the week bruised and in poor shape going into next week unless something major emerges from the last day of talks.   The CNY meanwhile, could end up weakening more sharply in the weeks ahead, acting as a shock absorber to the impact of higher tariffs on Chinese exports.

For more on this topic I will be appearing on CNBC Asia at 8.00am (Singapore Time) on Monday morning.

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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.

China Stimulus Paying Off

For anyone doubting whether China’s monetary and fiscal stimulus measures are having any impact, the recent slate of March data releases should allay such concerns.  While a soft base early in the year may explain some of the bounce in March there is little doubt that China’s growth engine is beginning to rev again.

China data released today was firmer than expected almost across the board.  Notably industrial production rose 8.5% y/y (consensus 5.9%), retail sales were up 8.7% y/y (consensus 8.4%) and last, but not least, GDP rose 6.4%, slightly above the market (consensus. 6.3%).

This data follows on from last week’s firm monetary aggregates (March new loans, M2, aggregate financing) and manufacturing PMIs, all of which suggest that not only is stimulus beginning to work, but it could be working better than expected.   The turnaround in indicators in March has been particularly stark and has managed to overcome the softness in data in Jan/Feb.

The data is likely to bode well for risk assets generally, giving a further boost to equities, while likely keeping CNH/CNY supported.  Chinese equities are already up around 36% this year (CSI 300) and today’s data provides further fuel.  In contrast, a Chinese asset that may not like the data is bonds, with yields moving higher in the wake of the release.

Indeed with credit growth likely to pick up further this year and nominal GDP declining, China’s credit to GDP ratio is on the up again, and deleveraging is effectively over.  This does not bode well for bonds even with inflows related to bond index inclusion.

For the rest of the world’s economies, it will come as a relief that China’s economy is bottoming out, but it is important to note that China’s stimulus is largely domestically focussed.  The global impact will be far smaller than previous stimulus periods, suggesting that investors outside China shouldn’t get their hopes up.

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.

China easing as data softens

China’s decision over the weekend to cut the required reserve ratio (RRR) by 100bp (effective Oct 15), the fourth cut this year, will inject around CNY 750bn in liquidity into China’s money markets. The decision to ease comes in the wake of a run of recent soft data.   There should be no big surprise.  China is reluctant to ease policy via a policy rate cut to avoid fuelling any increase in leverage and therefore continues to embark on targeted easing in the form of RRR cuts.

It is likely that further RRR cuts in addition to fiscal stimulus are in the pipeline to cushion the slowdown in the economy.   Indeed, growth was already slowing before the US tariffs impact bites and will likely slow further in the months ahead as the impact of tariffs has a greater effect.   Recent forward looking data including the official and CAIXIN purchasing managers’ indices (PMIs) of manufacturing confidence have softened, with the exports component of the PMIs dropping significantly.

Such cuts will weigh on China’s currency, CNY/CNH and a continued spot depreciation versus USD is likely.   After its sharp decline in June/July FX the PBoC has succeeded in stabilising the CNY (in trade weighted terms) however.   Any decline in foreign exchange reserves has been limited as reflected in the latest FX reserves data, which revealed that FX reserves dropped by $22.7bn only in September, suggesting that as yet there have not been significant capital outflows (ie panic) from China and limited need for FX intervention to support the CNY.

Asian currencies weaken

Asian currencies are facing pressure today in the wake of a generally firmer USD tone although the fact that US Treasury yields continue to edge lower will provide some relief. There has been some good news on the flow front, with the region registering a return of equity portfolio flows so far this month to the tune of USD 1.56 bn, with all countries except Vietnam registering equity inflows. Notably however, India has registered strong outflows of equity capital this week, which could cap gains in the INR.

Weakness in the CNY and CNH has been sustained with the USD grinding higher against both. Recently weaker economic news and expectations of some form of policy measures on the FX front (perhaps band widening) soon after the end of the National People’s Congress will keep the CNY and CNH under pressure.

March’s biggest outperformer the IDR has been an underperformer overnight although its drop has been small compared to the magnitude of recent gains. Nonetheless, USD/IDR may have found a tough level to crack around 11400.

The INR is set to trade with a marginally weaker tone but further direction will come from today’s releases of January industrial production and February CPI inflation data. A move back to 61.50 for USD/INR is likely unless the data comes in strong.

Chinese yuan drops further

China lowered the CNY’s fixing by 0.18% to 6.1312 per USD today, the biggest cut in the fixing since July 2012 to the weakest level since December 3. The move comes quickly in the wake of the poor trade data over the weekend and in particular the sharp 18.1% drop in exports compared to a year earlier.

Although lunar new year timing may have impacted the data, the drop in exports is still significant and may explain why China has been forcing a weaker currency over recent weeks.

Additionally February inflation data in China was soft, with price pressures recording a broad based decline, with CPI inflation falling to a 13 month low of 2% YoY. The soft inflation data adds further reason for the authorities in China to push for a weaker currency.

USD/CNY and USD/CNH both moving higher in reaction to the data and weaker fixing, with the Chinese currency likely to remain under pressure in the short term both onshore and offshore.

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