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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Positive Start To The Week

Markets start this week on a positive note in the wake of 1) the strong US December jobs report, which revealed a larger than expected increase in non-farm payrolls of 312k and decent growth in average hourly earnings of 0.4% m/m, 2) positive comments by Fed Chairman Powell on the US economy, while noting that the Fed will be patient if needed and 3) the 1% banks’ reserve requirement (RRR) cut by the PBoC in China.   Powell’s comments will also weigh on the USD this week against the background of long USD positioning, helping EM currencies.  He speaks again on Thursday.

Events this week will be key in determining the tone for markets further out, however.  In the UK parliament returns after its holiday break, with debate on the “meaningful vote” taking place over the week and markets will watch for any sign that May’s proposed deal gains traction.  The FT reports that she is facing a fresh challenge, with senior MPs signing up to block the government from implementing no-deal measures with parliament’s consent. x

China’s RRR cut (announced on Friday) will help to put a floor under risk sentiment.  The total 1% easing will release RMB 800 bn of liquidity, according to the PBoC, ahead of the Chinese New Year. A cut was widely expected in the wake of weak data and strongly hinted at by Premier Li prior to the PBoC announcement. The PBoC already cut the RRRs four times in 2018, and more should be expected to come, including MLF and other targeted easing.

Focus will centre on trade talks between US and Chinese officials beginning today.   Both sides are under pressure to arrive at a deal in the wake of pressure on US asset markets and weakening Chinese growth, but the differences between the two sides remain large. The US delegation will be led by Jeff Gerrish, the deputy trade representative and he is joined by officials from the agriculture, energy and treasury departments, suggesting that talks will centre on more detailed content.

Worsening China Economic News

There was more bad news on the data front from China.  Data released yesterday revealed a further slowing in the manufacturing sector. The Caixin purchasing managers index (PMI) dropped to 50.0 in September, its lowest reading since May 2017. This index which is far more weighted towards smaller companies is more sensitive to export concerns. Further pressure on sentiment is likely over coming months as tariffs bite, with prospects of another $267bn of US tariffs against China still very much alive.

The official China manufacturing PMI fell to 50.8, its lowest since February 2018, from 51.3 in August. Reflecting worsening trade tensions, the new export orders component of the index fell to 48, its fourth consecutive contraction and lowest reading since 2016. In contrast the non-manufacturing PMI strengthened to 54.9 from 51.2 in August reflecting firm service sector conditions. S

Separately China’s central bank, the PBoC stated on Saturday that it will maintain a prudent and neutral monetary policy stance while maintaining ample liquidity. This implies further targeted easing. The data may fuel further pressure for a weaker Chinese currency path in the weeks ahead though it is unlikely that China will revert to the fast pace of CNY depreciation registered over June.

 

What now for the CNY?

News that China doubled its currency band (to 2% from 1% in relation to its daily mid point) will have reverberations across markets but the reality is that China has been building up to this for several weeks and now that it has happened there may be little incentive to push for more currency weakness.

The net result will probably be less volatility after an initial knee jerk reaction and some relief in markets that the China has actually gone ahead with the move after so much speculation. The reaction of the CNY is set to follow the same script as April 2012, with volatility set to ease once the initial reaction fades.

The weakness in the CNY had been engineered to incite more two way risk to a currency that for many months had been on a one way path of appreciation. China had been forcing the CNY weaker over recent weeks in order to deter speculators who had taken significant long positions in the currency playing for further currency strength.

CNY depreciation versus the USD (around 1.5%) since mid February may also have been a reflection of weaker economic data, with China releasing a series of data releases that had missed consensus forecasts, especially recent trade data.

Already both implied and realized USD/CNY volatility has been trading well in excess of past moves (as reflected in statistical significant readings in our Z-score analysis). Additionally risk reversal skews (3 month, 25 delta) have been flirting with its 2 standard deviation band indicative of the view that the options market holds an extreme view of CNY downside risks.

The main imponderable is what China does now. The band widening is clearly a further step along the road of freeing up the currency on the road to capital account convertibility. However, the reality is that the Peoples Bank of China (PBoC) still sets the daily fixing and the movement in the CNY will still largely depend on where this fixing is set.

Ultimately a move towards a more market based currency will need to allow the market to determine the level and movements in USD/CNY. This may still be a long way off. In the meantime it seems unlikely that the authorities will intervene as aggressively to weaken the CNY as they have done in recent weeks, with a breach of USD/CNY 6.15 likely prove short lived.

China’s still healthy external position and likely resumption of capital inflows will mean that appreciation pressure on the CNY will return and a move back to around 6.00 by end 2014 remains on the cards.

Equity outflows from Asia accelerate

A slate of better than expected US data releases including May durable goods orders, new home sales and June consumer confidence data (the latter two releases reaching their highest levels since 2008) helped to boost risk appetite, spurring equity markets higher and the VIX ‘fear gauge’ lower.

Firmer US data came alongside soothing comments from China’s central bank PBoC, about liquidity conditions in the banking sector, with an official noting that it will keep money market rates at “reasonable levels”. The European Central Bank’s Draghi added to the fray by noting that Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) was even more essential now, highlighting the ongoing backstop provided by potential ECB peripheral bond purchases.

Meanwhile the positive US data releases helped to push Treasury yields higher, with the 10 year yield breaching 2.6%. Commodities remained under pressure, with higher yields in particular weighing on gold prices.

The calendar is rather light today and will provide little market direction, with an Ecofin meeting in Europe, UK spending review and US Q1 GDP revision in tap. Expect some positive follow through from the firmer tone to European and US equities overnight which will support risk assets including EM currencies although concerns about tapering are from over.

The rout in equity markets over recent weeks has had a devastating impact on equity flows to Asia. The outflow of equity portfolio capital from Asia accelerated sharply over June. Month to data Asia has recorded $10.2 billion in outflows, a massive move out of the region given that total inflows year to data have now dropped to $8.7 billion. One more month at this pace of outflows would see Asia registering net outflows for the year.

Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan have been hit the most over June but no country has recorded net equity inflows. Year to date India has registered the strongest equity inflows of $14.7bn while South Korea has registered the biggest outflows of $7.3bn.

US dollar running rampant

A calmer tone looks like it will settle over markets today after recent sharp volatility. However, little relief to the pain inflicted on markets from tapering fears is likely this week. Weaker growth and funding concerns in China added another layer of uncertainty to the market psyche although comments from China’s central bank the PBoC about “fine tuning” may help to allay fears of a wider credit crunch.

Meanwhile across the pond Fed officials are probably quite frustrated by the market reaction to last week’s FOMC statement. There will be plenty of Fed speakers on tap this week to provide clarification, with markets looking for some soothing comments. Given the varying and diverse views among Fed officials such hopes may be dashed.

Data releases both in the US and Europe will be encouraging in terms of recovery expectations but will do little to ease the angst over tapering. In the US durable goods orders and new homes sales will record gains in May while June consumer sentiment indices will remain at relatively high levels.

In Europe, aside from the European council meeting this week the German IFO business confidence survey today and economic sentiment gauges later in the week are set to rise in June. In Japan the main CPI inflation gauge will stabilize in May although reaching the 2% inflation targets remains as difficult as ever while industrial production is set to decline in May due to still fragile foreign demand.

Most asset markets will continue to track bonds, with equities, and commodities remaining under pressure and the USD supported by higher US yields. Notably 10 year Treasury yields spiked to over 2.5%, a sharp increase over the week. Consequently the USD’s firm tone was expressed across a broad swathe of currencies, with Scandinavian, Latam and commodity currencies among the worst performers.

Emerging market and commodity currencies are set to suffer from continued capital outflows while the USD runs rampant. However, many currencies look oversold and over the near term some stabilisation is likely as they benefit from a slightly better risk tone at the turn of the week. As indicated by the latest CTFC IMM data, the USD long positioning has been cut back, suggesting scope for further gains. EUR positioning has turned net long for the first time in four months implying no further room for short covering.

China Hikes Rates, More On the Cards

In an otherwise unexciting day China livened things up by raising its 1 year deposit and lending rates by 25 basis points. The hike, the third in the last four months, should not have come as a surprise, given the growing emphasis by China’s central bank PBoC, to dampen inflation pressures. Indeed, more hikes are on the cards, with at least another two more in prospect over H1. The other tool to combat inflation is CNY appreciation further gains in the currency over coming months should be expected to around 6.3 by year-end versus USD.

Global markets largely shrugged of China’s move, with generally positive market sentiment continuing. Even in the eurozone, where there was some disappointment at the surprise drop in German December industrial production, market sentiment continued to improve as Egypt and local debt worries eased further. EUR was particularly resilient despite calls from a Belgian think tank that Greece needs to restructure its debt to avoid a long and painful path ahead. Commodity currencies also showed impressive resilience to China’s rate hike, with both the AUD and NZD holding up well.

The overall positive risk background is supportive for Asian currencies and other risk trades. Currencies in Asia remain highly correlated with portfolio capital inflows and so far this year the weakness in the INR and THB has matched the strong equity outflows from India and Thailand. However, this appears to be reversing, especially in the case of India registering positive equity flows this month, helping the INR to reverse some of its losses.

In the absence of key data releases markets will turn their attention to the testimony by Fed Chairman Bernanke to the House budget committee where he will give comments on the economy, jobs and the budget. Dallas Fed’s Fisher stated overnight that whilst he expects the Fed to complete QE2 he would not support another round of quantitative easing. Fisher’s comments on QE were similar to Atlanta Fed’s Lockhart who notes there is a “high bar” for more QE. Bernanke is unlikely to deviate from this tone in his speech today whilst also maintaining his view that there should be a long term commitment to fiscal retrenchment.

Against the background of improving risk appetite the USD is likely to stay under mild pressure although it is difficult to see a break of recent ranges for most currency pairs. EUR/USD ought to find strong support around its 100-day moving average 1.3535 whilst USD/JPY will be supported around 81.10. Equity sentiment is being supported by US data which remains encouraging. On cue the NFIB Small Business Optimism index duly rose in January to 94.1 as sentiment in this sector continued its improving trend.

Taken together with firmer equities, encouraging data is taking its toll on US bond markets, resulting in a back up in yields. Bond market sentiment wasn’t helped by a relatively poor 3-year auction. For example, US 2-year bond yields have backed up by over 30bps since 28 January. Bad news for bond is good news for the USD however, as higher relative US bond yields will likely help prevent a deeper USD sell-off, with EUR/USD in particular most reactive to relative eurozone / US bond yield differentials.

Econometer.org has been nominated in FXstreet.com’s Forex Best Awards 2011 in the “Best Fundamental Analysis” category. The survey is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fx_awards_2011

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