Asia In Demand

Equity markets managed to shake off Covid concerns at the end of last week despite virus cases in the US reaching a record high and Europe battling a full-blown second wave; S&P 500 and Russell 2000 hit record highs.  Asian equities started the week building on this positive momentum.  Helping markets was the news that advisors to President-elect Joe Biden have said they oppose a nationwide US lockdown despite the sharp rise in virus cases.  This will help allay fears that the US economy will weaken sharply over the next few months amid severe lockdowns and before a vaccine can be distributed.

Vaccine enthusiasm will likely play against Covid escalation in the days and weeks ahead. In the near-term slim chances of a sizeable US fiscal stimulus taken together with a more rapid increase in global Covid infections highlight clear risks to risk assets, and this may be enough to put roadblocks in place at a time when various equity indices are reaching key technical levels.  Conversely, it is too early to write the US dollar off in the short term even if the medium-term trend is likely to be downwards. 

Asia remains favoured within emerging markets, as the virus has come under control across most of the region.  News of the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal by 15 countries in the region after 8 years of negotiations, but without the US and India, provides another boost to regional economic and market prospects.  The deal is less extensive than the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as it removes around 90% of tariffs rather than 100% under TPP.  Nonetheless, it is estimated that the deal could boost the global economy by close to $200bn by 2030.  Although the deal still has to be ratified by a number of countries it is a step closer to a unified trade block like the EU.   

Additionally, Chinese data today ought to be supportive for regional assets even amid the threat of further sanctions by President Trump’s administration in the weeks ahead. China’s October activity data including industrial production fixed assets investment, property investment and the jobless rate were on balance positive, showing that China’s economic recovery is gathering steam.  The data will likely provide further support to China’s markets including China’s currency, though it effectively seals the case for no further easing by China’s central bank, PBoC, while giving the rest of Asia more fuel to rally. 

Over the rest of the week emerging markets central banks will garner most attention, with a plethora of policy rate decisions on tap.  Hungary (Tue), Thailand (Wed), Philippines (Thu), South Africa (Thu), and China (Fri) are set to keep policy rates on hold while Indonesia (Thu) is likely to cut by 25bps and Turkey is expected to hike its policy rate by 475bp hike (Thu).   Turkey in particular will be a focus in this respect given the replacement of central bank governor and the more than 10% rally in the Turkish lira last week.

Still Buying On Dips

US stocks had a positive end to the week despite the ongoing uncertainty over a new fiscal stimulus package.  A buy on dips mentality continues to hold on any sell off in equities and risk assets in general.  Although President Trump is now calling for a much larger stimulus, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has only edged close to Democrats demands for a $2.2 trillion stimulus, by offering $1.8 trillion.  This was subsequently rejected by House speaker Nancy Pelosi.  A deal this side of the election still looks unlikely given the differences between the two sides in not just the size, but also the content of further stimulus.  Either way it’s doubtful this will stop equity markets from moving higher in the interim.

Although markets will continue to keep one eye on the approach of US elections this week – especially on whether President Trump can try to claw back some of the lead that Democratic Presidential contender Joe Biden has built according to recent polls – it is a busy one for events and data, especially in Asia.  Key US data releases include US September CPI inflation (Monday) and retail sales (Fri) while in Australia a speech by the RBA governor (Thu) and employment data (Fri) will be in focus.  In Asia monetary policy decisions by central banks in Indonesia (Tue), Singapore (Wed) and Korea (Wed) will be in focus though no changes in policy are expected from any of them. 

In Singapore, the 6-monthly policy decision by the Monetary Authority of Singapore is unlikely to deliver any major surprises.  Singapore’s monetary policy is carried out via its exchange rate and the MAS is likely to keep the slope, mid-point and width of the Singapore dollar (SGD) nominal effective exchange rate (NEER) band unchanged amid signs of improvement in the economy. Singapore’s government has announced several fiscal stimulus packages (February 18, March 26, April 6, April 21, May 26, August 17) helping to provide much needed support to the economy, with total stimulus estimated to amount to just over SGD 100bn.  Much of the heavy lifting to help support the economic recovery is likely to continue to come from fiscal spending.

In Indonesia, the central bank, Bank Indonesia (BI), has been on hold since July and a similar outcome is expected at its meeting on Tuesday, with the 7-day reverse repo likely to be left unchanged at 4%. However, the risk is skewed towards easing. Since the last meeting the economy has suffered setbacks. Manufacturing confidence deteriorated in Sep, consumer confidence has also slipped while Inflation continues to remain benign. However, BI may want to see signs of greater stability/appreciation in the Indonesia rupiah (IDR) before cutting rates further.

Chinese data including September Trade data and CPI inflation (both on Thursday) will also be scrutinised and will likely add to the growing evidence of economic resilience, that has helped to push China’s currency, the renminbi (CNY) persistently stronger over recent weeks.  Indeed, the CNY and its offshore equivalent CNH, have been the best performing Asian currencies over the last few months.  This is a reflection of the fact that China’s economy is rapidly emerging from the Covid crisis and is likely to be only one of a few countries posting positive growth this year; recent data has revealed both strengthening supply and demand side activity, amid almost full opening up of China’s economy.

A Host Of Global Risks

Last week was a tumultuous one to say the least.  It’s been a long time since so many risk factors have come together at the same time.  The list is a long one and includes the escalation of the US-China trade war, which last week saw President Trump announce further tariffs on the remaining $300bn of Chinese exports to the US that do not already have tariffs levied on them, a break of USDCNY 7.00 and the US officially naming China as a currency manipulator.

The list of risk factors afflicting sentiment also includes intensifying Japan-Korea trade tensions, growing potential for a no-deal Brexit, demonstrations in Hong Kong, risks of a fresh election in Italy, growing fears of another Argentina default, ongoing tensions with Iran and escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

All of this is taking place against the background of weakening global growth, with officials globally cutting their growth forecasts and sharply lower yields in G10 bond markets.  The latest country to miss its growth estimates is Singapore, a highly trade driven economy and bellwether of global trade, which today slashed its GDP forecasts.

Central banks are reacting by easing policy.  Last week, the New Zealand’s RBNZ, cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 50 basis points, India cut its policy rate by a bigger than expected 35 basis points and Thailand surprisingly cutting by 25 basis points.  More rate cuts/policy easing is in the pipeline globally in the weeks and months ahead, with all eyes on the next moves by the Fed.  Moving into focus in this respect will be the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium on 22/23 August and Fed FOMC minutes on 21 August.

After the abrupt and sharp depreciation in China’s currency CNY, last week and break of USDCNY 7.00 there is evidence that China wants to control/slow the pace of depreciation to avoid a repeat, even as the overall path of the currency remains a weaker one. Firstly, CNY fixings have been generally stronger than expected over recent days and secondly, the spread between CNY and CNH has widened sharply, with the former stronger than the latter by a wider margin than usual.  Thirdly, comments from Chinese officials suggest that they are no keen on sharp pace of depreciation.

Markets will remain on tenterhooks given all the factors above and it finally seems that equity markets are succumbing to pressure, with stocks broadly lower over the last month, even as gains for the year remain relatively healthy.  The US dollar has remained a beneficiary of higher risk aversion though safe havens including Japanese yen and Swiss Franc are the main gainers in line with the move into safe assets globally.  Unfortunately there is little chance of any turnaround anytime soon given the potential for any one or more of the above risk factors to worsen.

‘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.

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.

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