US-China tensions – Risks of a body blow to markets

Tensions between the US and China are once again escalating, resulting in growing nervousness in markets and raising concerns of a further deterioration in global trade at a time when the world is increasingly reeling from the devastating economic impact of Covid-19.   As many countries open up their economies hopes that activity can finally begin to resume, has strengthened.  However, the economic cost is still mounting and as revealed in awful economic data globally over recent weeks the picture is a horrible one.

It will be a fine balancing act for the US administration between imposing more trade tariffs and in turn hurting US importers on the one hand and punishing China for accusations of concealing information about spreading Covid-19 on the other.  President Trump recently threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China, which threatens the “Phase 1” trade deal reached at the beginning of this year.   Recent moves by the US administration include instructing a federal pensions fund to shift some investments in Chinese stocks and tightening export controls on Chinese telecoms company Huawei and its suppliers, which the US administrations says are contrary to US national security.

However, the White House may want to keep trade separate from other measures including tighter export controls and investment restrictions.  Indeed recent talks between senior US and Chinese officials on implementing the Phase 1 deal appeared to be cordial and constructive while Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council said on Friday that the trade deal is continuing.  This is logical.  Renewed tariffs on imports from China would hurt the US consumer, while likely retaliation from China would mean any chance of China increasing its purchases of US goods as part of the Phase 1 deal would disappear, inflicting more pain on the US economy.

One other major consequence of a new round of US tariffs on China would likely be a weaker Chinese currency.  So far China has avoided weakening the yuan, which could also provoke increased capital outflows from China (as it did in Jan 2015 and mid 2016) and a drain on FX reserves at a time when Chinese growth is slowing sharply.  However, China may yet opt for a sharp depreciation/devaluation of the yuan to retaliate against fresh tariffs and to support its exporters as it did when the US first imposed tariffs on the country.  Although this comes with risks for China as noted above, if it was sold as a one off move and was well controlled, it need not fuel an increase in capital outflows from China. This is something that the US will wish to avoid.

Although the US may want to avoid trade as the primary target of any pressure on China, this does not mean that tensions will not increase.  In fact it is highly likely that the relationship between the US and China will worsen ahead of US elections in November, especially as it is one issue which garners broad support among the US electorate. As such, US measures will likely skirt trade restrictions but will most probably involve a whole host of other measures including tightening export controls, student visa restrictions, investment restrictions, and other such measures.  Markets hardly need a reason to be nervous, but after a multi week rally, this is an issue that could prove to be a major body blow to risk assets.

Coronavirus – The Hit To China and Asia

Coronavirus fears have become the dominant the driver of markets, threatening Chinese and Asian growth and fueling a rise in market volatility.  Global equities have largely bounced back since the initial shock waves, but vulnerability remains as the virus continues to spread (latest count 40,514 confirmed, 910 deaths) and the number of cases continues to rise.  China helped sentiment by injecting substantial liquidity into its markets (CNY 150bn in liquidity via 7-day and 14-day reverse repos, while cutting the rate on both by 10bp) but the economic impact continues to deepen.

Today is important for China’s industry.  Many companies open up after a prolonged Lunar New Year holiday though many are likely to remain closed.  The Financial Times reports that many are extending further, with for example Alibaba and Meituan extending to Feb 16 at the earliest.  Foxconn is reportedly not going to resume iPhone production in Zhengzhou, while some regions have told employers in hard hit cities to extend by a week or two.  This suggests that the economic hit is going to be harder in Q1 and for the full year.

The extent of economic damage is clearly not easy to gauge at this stage. What we know is that the quarantine measures, travel restrictions and business shutdowns have been extensive and while these may limit the spread of the virus, the immediate economic impact may be significant. While transport and retail sectors have fared badly, output/production is increasingly being affected. This may result in a more severe impact than SARS, at least in the current quarter (potentially dropping to around 4-4.5% y/y or lower, from 6% y/y in Q4 2019).

China’s economy is far larger and more integrated into global supply chains than it was during SARS in 2003, suggesting that the global impact could be deeper this time, especially if the economic damage widens from services to production within China. Worryingly, China’s economy is also in a more fragile state than it was in 2003, with growth already on track to slow this year (as compared to 10% GDP growth in 2003 and acceleration in the years after).

This does not bode well for Asia.  Asia will be impacted via supply chains, tourism and oil prices.   The first will be particularly negative for manufacturers in the region, that are exposed to China’s supply chains, with Korea, Japan and Taiwan relatively more exposed. Weakness in tourism will likely  be more negative  for Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore.  Growth worries have pressured oil prices lower and this may be a silver lining, especially for big oil importers such as India.

US-China Phase 1, Now What?

Now that the long awaited Phase 1 deal has been signed between the US and China (significantly taking place in the White House) and details finally released (in a 94 page document) it’s worth asking whether much has actually changed.  After all, China still faces (high) tariffs on around two-thirds of its exports to the US while the deal does little to end Chinese state subsidies.  In return the US offers little aside from removing tariff increases.  Intellectual property transfer commitments agreed in the deal are mostly not new as China had already addressed most of these. 

Ironically the magnitude of Chinese purchases, ($77.7bn in manufactured goods, $32bn in agricultural goods, $52.4bn in energy and $37.9bn in services to Dec 2021) means that the Chinese State will have to be even more active in influencing its economy.  The reality is that to achieve this is going to be extremely difficult if not highly unlikely though this may ultimately not matter if China is seen to significantly increase its US purchases.

Looking ahead don’t expect China to be as agreeable on a Phase 2 deal; any such deal would touch on far more sensitive issues.  The likelihood of this being agreed and signed ahead of US elections or maybe at all, is low.  However, in the near term, the deal keeps the risk taps open and avoids any near-term escalation while President Trump walks away with another notch on his belt.  What it doesn’t do is stop any of the US non-tariff barriers, export controls etc, that will still hurt Chinese companies and push China to develop its own technology. Chinese growth will not get much of an uplift from the deal while markets have already largely priced it in.

The commitment from China on the Chinese yuan (CNY) looks vague (achieve market determined FX rate, strengthen underlying fundamentals, refrain from competitive devaluations, avoid large scale, persistent, one-sided intervention), but China will at least avoid any sharp devaluations (of the type experienced in mid-2015, Jan 16), not that they would want to do that again given the negative consequences on its markets/economy.  And as it is China has not been intervening significantly in FX markets for a long while so this should not be difficult either.

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.

Will The Risk Rally Endure?

There has been a definitive turnaround in risk sentiment this week, with equities rallying and bonds falling.  Whether it can be sustained is another question. I think it will be short-lived.

Markets are pinning their hopes on trade talks which have been agreed be US and Chinese officials to take place in October.  These would be the first official talks since July and follow an intensification of tariffs over recent weeks.  However, talks previously broke up due to a lack of progress on various structural issues and there is no guarantee that anything would be different this time around.  Nonetheless, such hopes may be sufficient to keep market sentiment buoyed in the short term.

Data overnight was bullish for risk sentiment, with the US August ADP employment report revealing private sector gains of +195k, which was higher than expected.  The US ISM non-manufacturing index was also stronger than expected, rising to 56.4 in August from 53.7 previously.  This contrasted with the slide in the manufacturing PMI, which slipped in contraction below 50, reported earlier this week.  The data sets up for a positive outcome for the US August jobs report to be released later today, where the consensus (Bloomberg) is for a 160k increase in payrolls and for the unemployment rate to remain at 3.7%.

As risk appetite has improved the US dollar has come under pressure, falling from its recent highs.  Nonetheless, the dollar remains at over two year highs despite speculation that the US authorities are on the verge of embarking on intervention to weaken the currency.  While I think such intervention is still very unlikely given that it would do little to change the factors driving the dollar higher, chatter about potential intervention may still keep dollar bulls wary.  While intervention is a risk, I don’t think this stop the USD from moving even higher in the weeks ahead.

Conversely China’s currency, the renminbi has reversed some of its recent losses, but this looks like a temporary retracement rather than a change in trend.  China’s economy continues to weaken as reflected in a series of weaker data releases and a weaker currency is still an effective way to alleviate some of the pressure on Chinese exporters. As long as the pace of decline is not too rapid and does incite a sharp increase in capital outflows, I expect the renminbi to continue to weaken.

US-China Trade War: The Gloves Are Off

The US-China trade war took another step for the worse over the weekend. China announced tariffs on the US of between 5- 10% on $75bn of US imports from September.  Chinese tariffs target 5,078 products including agriculture and small aircraft as well as crude oil. The US responded by increasing its tariffs on $250bn of Chinese imports from 25% to 30% while increasing duties from 10% to 15% on $300bn of Chinese imports to the US from September 1.   President Trump initially said he had “second thoughts” on additional tariffs, but these were clarified to state that “he regrets not raising the tariffs higher”.

The gloves are off on both sides. As indicated by the editorial in China’s People’s Daily states that China will fight the trade war to the end while influential Chinese journalist Hu Xijin said that “we have nothing more to lose, while the US is starting to lose China”, highlights China’s tougher stance.  Meanwhile President Trump is looking at the “Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977” in forcing US companies to quit China.

Asia’s markets have responded in pain, with stocks and currencies falling while safe havens such as US Treasuries have been in demand.  Indeed the 10-year US Treasury yield has fallen to a three-year low.  Markets have priced in even further easing by the Fed FOMC, with almost three rate cuts by the PBoC discounted in by the end of this year.  Equity futures point to a weak opening in US equities today.

One casualty is the Chinese yuan, which took another leg lower today, having fallen by close to 7% since mid-April.  Further pressure on the yuan is likely, but China may not be too concerned as long as the pace of weakness does not get out of hand. China may try to control the pace of the decline to prevent a repeat of the FX reserves drain seen in mid-2015 and Jan 2016. At the least yuan depreciation will act as a buffer for Chinese exporters against increased US tariffs.  However, expect further yuan depreciation to be met with increased criticism and perhaps more US action, with the US already having labeled China a currency manipulator.

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.

%d bloggers like this: