US/China – The Gloves Are Off

The delay in the Phase 1 trade deal review (initially slated for Sat 15 Aug) will come as a disappointment though it was reported that it did not reflect any substantive problem with the trade deal, but rather to give China more time to increase purchases of US goods.  China’s reported desire to include TikToK and WeChat restrictions to the discussions may have also played a part.  The Phase 1 review delay followed by President Trump’s order for ByteDance to divest TikTok’s US operations within 90 days and ending of a waiver allowing US companies to continue selling goods to Huawei, ratchets up tensions another notch.

It is abundantly clear that ahead of US elections in November the gloves have come off.  More is yet come and next steps may involve sanctions against more Chinese companies and eventually even Chinese banks.  China’s reaction continues to be measured, which suggests the broader impact on risk appetite will remain contained for now.  China wants to retain foreign investment and has continued to enact measures to open up to such investment.  Reciprocating sanctions on US companies in China would go against this path and seems unlikely to take place unless tensions worsen further.

However, it is not clear that China’s actions will remain measured. The US administration is set on pushing more sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies in what has become a whole of government approach. This is something that has broad based bipartisan support within the electorate.  The risk of crossing certain red lines, perhaps (though still unlikely as Trump sees this as a key success of his Presidency) by scrapping Phase 1 or perhaps by sanctioning Chinese banks by cutting them out of the USD liquidity and payments system and/or by some sort of military escalation in the South China Sea, could yet lead to a much more significant reaction from China and a more severe impact on global markets.

The likely path however, is that the US administration will try to keep Phase 1 alive even as China is far behind its targets on imports of US goods; according to PIIE through the first 6 months of the year China’s purchases of US goods were 39% (US exports data) or 48% (Chinese imports data) of their year-to-date targets.  Given the gap, in part due to Covid, but also due to initially ambitious targets, the delay in the Phase review should not be a big surprise.  The US may be wiling to give China some room to try to move towards reaching its targets, but the gap will not be easy to bridge.  Regardless, US/China tensions will be an ever present part of the landscape in the months ahead of US elections and markets may not remain as sanguine as they have been so far.

Combating Recession Risks

Following a volatile last week market attention will remain on trade tensions, measures to combat the risks of recession and will turn to the Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium at the end of the week. The inversion of the US yield curve has led to growing expectations that the US is heading into recession and has spurred inflows into bonds. As a result US Treasury yields continue to fall and the stockpile of negative yielding debt has risen to well over $16 trillion. While economic data in the US remains relatively firm, the picture in the rest of the world has deteriorated sharply as reflected in weakening German and Chinese trade, against the background of a weak trade backdrop.

There have been some mixed headlines on trade over the weekend – Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council under President Trump, said yesterday that recent phone calls between US and Chinese trade negotiators had been “positive”, with more teleconference meetings planned over the next 10 days.  Separately US media reported that the US commerce department was preparing to extend a temporary license for companies to do business with Huawei for 90 days. However, Trump poured cold water on this by stating that “Huawei is a company that we may not do business with at all”.  A decision will be made today.

In the wake of growing expectations of recession, attention is turning on what will be done by governments and central banks to combat such risks.  The Jackson Hole meeting on Thursday will be particularly important to gauge what major central bankers are thinking and in particular whether and to what degree Federal Reserve Chairman Powell is planning on cutting US rates further.  We will be able to garner further evidence of Fed deliberations, with the release of the Fed FOMC July meeting minutes on Wednesday.

While central bankers look at potential monetary policy steps governments are likely to look at ways of providing further fiscal stimulus.  Kudlow stated that the US administration was “looking at” the prospects of tax cuts, while pressure on the German government to loosen is purse strings has also grown.  Even in the UK where a hard Brexit looms, the government is reportedly readying itself with a fiscal package to support growth in the aftermath.   Such news will come as a relief to markets, but recession worries are not likely to dissipate quickly, which will likely keep volatility elevated, and maintain the bias towards safe haven assets in the weeks ahead.

US-China Trade Truce Boosts Sentiment

Weekend developments will help set up the markets for a risk on day.  However, any improvement in sentiment will likely be capped. The good news was that the US and China agreed to a trade truce at the G20 summit, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at the demilitarised zone while separately the EU and Mercosur agreed upon a trade deal in a strong retort against the rising trend of protectionism.

Presidents Trump and Xi agreed to delay the implementation of new tariffs (on the remaining $300bn of Chinese exports to the US) while agreeing to restart trade talks, albeit with no time table scheduled as yet.  The delay in tariffs escalation and restart of trade talks was in line with expectations but concessions on Huawei were not.   Trump stated that US companies can sell equipment to Huawei without giving details on what can be sold while China also agreed to buy more US agricultural goods.

The chances of a US-China trade deal have risen, but it could still take several months before various remaining structural issues (forced technology transfers, state subsidies, discrimination against foreign companies, regulations on intellectual property etc)
are ironed out. The lack of time frame on US-China trade talks, ongoing structural issues, lack of details on what equipment US suppliers can sell to Huawei and a host of data releases, will limit the improvement in sentiment and reduce the likelihood of any near term deal.

Looking ahead, sentiment may be clouded somewhat by the disappointing China purchasing managers’ index (PMI) yesterday, with the manufacturing PMI coming in at 49.4 in June, the same as in May, with manufacturing continuing to contract.  However, markets may be willing to overlook this as trade tensions were likely a prime reason for the continued weakness in manufacturing confidence.   As such, China’s currency CNY and asset markets will likely react positively overall.

The events over the weekend will likely reduce the chances of a 50bps rate by the Fed at their next meeting, but much will depend on upcoming data.   This includes the June US ISM survey today and employment report on Friday.  Markets expect a 160k bounce back in payrolls in June after the surprisingly weak 75k increase in the previous month.  Assuming the data is line with expectations it seems unlikely that the Fed will feel the need to ease policy by more than 25bp when they meet at the end of the month.

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