A Sour Note

Markets ended last week on a sour note as a few underlying themes continue to afflict investor sentiment.  The latest concern was the decision by US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to pull back the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program despite Fed objections. The timing is clearly not ideal given the worsening in the US economy likely in the next few weeks amid a spike in Covid-19 cases, and lack of fiscal stimulus.  That said, these facilities have hardly been used, due in part to stringent terms on many of these lending facilities.  Also pulling the funds back from the Fed could give Congress room to move towards a fiscal deal.  The decision may also not get in President-elect Biden’s way; if he needs the funds for the Fed to ramp up lending the Treasury can quickly extend funding without Congressional approval when he becomes President.  However, no new credit will be available in these programs during the interim period before he takes office, which could present risks to the economy.

Equity markets will continue to struggle in the near term amid a continued surge in Covid cases.  The latest data revealed that the US registered a one-day record of 192,000 cases.  More and more states are implementing stricter social distancing measures, but its worth noting that restrictions are less severe than in March-April.   There are also growing concerns that the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday will result in an even more rapid spread of the virus, with the US centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommending Americans not travel over this period.  The battle playing on investor sentiment between rising Covid cases and the arrival of several vaccines, is being won by Covid worries at present, a factor that will likely continue to restrain investor sentiment for equities and other risk assets over the short term at a time when major US equity indices are running up against strong technical resistance levels. 

This week attention will turn to the Federal Reserve FOMC minutes (Wednesday) for the 5th November meeting.  While there were no new actions at this meeting the minutes may shed light on the Fed’s options to change “parameters” of quantitative easing (QE) and how close the Fed is to lengthening the maturity of its asset purchases.  Separately October US Personal Income and Spending data (Wednesday) will likely show some softening as fiscal stimulus fades.  Elsewhere, Eurozone and UK service purchasing managers indices (PMIs) (Monday) will likely reveal continued weakness in contraction territory as lockdown restrictions bite into activity.  Brexit discussions will be under scrutiny, with speculation growing that we could see a deal early in the week.  On the monetary policy front, decisions in Sweden and Korea (both on Thursday) will focus on unconventional policy, with potential for the Riksbank in Sweden to extend its quantitative easing program and Bank of Korea likely to focus on its lending programs and liquidity measures, rather than cut its policy rate.  Finally, expect another strong increase in Chinese industrial profits for October (Friday).

In Asia, official worries about currency appreciation are becoming increasingly vocal.  As the region continues to outperform both on the Covid control and growth recovery front, foreign inflows are increasingly being attracted to Asia.  This is coming at a time when balance of payments positions are strengthening, with the net result of considerable upward pressure on Asian currencies at a time of broad downward USD pressure.  Central banks across the region are sounding the alarm; Bank of Korea highlighted that its “monitoring” the FX market amid Korean won appreciation while Bank of Thailand announced fresh measures to encourage domestic capital outflows, thus attempting to limit Thai baht appreciation.  In India the Reserve Bank appears to be continuing its large-scale USD buying.  In Taiwan the central bank is reportedly making it easier for investors to access life insurance policies denominated in foreign currencies. Such measures are likely to ramp up, but this will slow rather than stem further gains in Asian currencies in the weeks and months ahead in my view.

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Brexit Developments Sharply In Focus

Two major market risks have been sidelined, though admittedly not taken off the table.  Firstly the prospects of an intensification of the US-China trade war appears to have diminished and secondly the risks of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal have lessened.  This presents a calmer and less volatile backdrop for markets even as global growth continues to remain under pressure.  Separately markets are hoping and expecting for some icing on the cake in the form of Fed easing later this month. As long as US Q3 earnings are not too bad, this suggests a period of calm ahead.

US-China trade developments are likely to take a back seat in the run up to the APEC meeting on 16-17 November in Chile where a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal may be signed by both US and Chinese leaders.  Talks rumbling in the background appear to progressing well, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Trade Representative Lighthizer scheduled to speak to China’s Vice Premier Liu He this week by phone.  Markets will carefully eye what the prospects are for a delay of the $156bn of US tariffs on China that are due to take effect on December 15.

Brexit developments will move sharply back into focus today, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to make a fresh attempt at passing a ‘meaningful vote’ today or gaining a majority in a vote on legislation implementing the deal tomorrow.  This follows having to jettison a vote on Saturday and being forced to write to the EU requesting a three-month delay to the Article 50 exit process.  The government thinks it has the number of votes necessary to pass the vote and the fact that GBP has only lost a little ground today (at the time of writing) suggests that markets think the chances are high.

Other than this, the European Central Bank meeting on Thursday will garner attention although President Draghi is unlikely to offer any further changes in policy, having come under criticism from hawks in the ECB governing council who opposed the renewed bond buying from the ECB.  Expect Draghi to maintain a dovish stance at this meeting.  Other central banks in focus this week include Norway, Sweden, Turkey and Indonesia.  The former two are likely to leave policy unchanged while both Turkey and Indonesia are likely to ease policy.

 

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.

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.

 

All Eyes On US/China Trade Talks

A major focus for markets next weeks is the US/China trade talks in Washington.  After the US reportedly turned down an offer of preparatory talks this week talks will begin on Monday, with China’s Vice Commerce Minister, Vice Finance Minister and central bank, PBoC governor.

It is unclear who on the US side they will meet, but the idea is to prepare the ground for the heavy weight talks between US Trade Representative Lighthizer, US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and China’s top economic official Liu He, from Jan 30 to 31.

Both sides need a win on trade and markets are pinning their hopes on some form of a deal. The reality is that they are still very far apart on a number of issues.  As highlighted by US commerce secretary Ross, a trade deal is “miles and miles” away.

The easier issues on the table are increased purchases of US goods by China, something that China has already said they will do, in order to help reduce the record Chinese trade surplus with the US.  The tougher issues are more structural, including forced technology transfers, state subsidies, discrimination against foreign companies, regulations on intellectual property etc.

Not only is the US determined to gain China’s agreement on the above issues, but is also looking to find ways to ensure compliance monitoring.  However, China does not believe that foreign companies are transferring technology to Chinese companies, while they have already offered measures to increase access to foreign investors.  Overall, this means there is little room for negotiation.

In any case with just over a month left before the March 1 deadline that President Trump has set before he imposes increased tariffs of 25% on around half of Chinese exports to the US, there is little time to thrash out a deal on the key structural issues that would likely satisfy the US administration.

The likelihood is that negotiations will not be completed, especially on structural issues, leaving markets very little to be excited about.  While both sides may leave the talks, claiming a degree of progress, this will not be sufficient to allay concerns.  Risk assets will look vulnerable against this background.

 

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