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.

US Dollar Sliding, Gold At Record Highs

Risk sentiment has turned south and the US stock rotation out of tech into value has gathered pace, with the Nasdaq ending down for a second straight week.  Gold is turning into a star performer, registering a record high today, while the US dollar continues to lose ground.  Economic activity is slowing, second round virus cases are accelerating in places that had previously flattened the curve, while US- China tensions are heating up.  Attention this week will centre on US fiscal discussions while US-China tensions remain a key focal point.

Reports suggest that Senate Republicans and the US administration have agreed on a $1 trillion coronavirus relief package.  This will be the opening offer in discussions with Democrats (who had passed a $3 trillion package in House in May), with less than a week before unemployment benefits expire.  Whether the $1 trillion on the table will be sufficient to satisfy Democrats is debatable and a figure of around $1.5 trillion looks plausible. Time is running out and pressure to reach a compromise is growing.   Further uncertainty will likely weigh on US markets in the days ahead.

US-China tensions remain a key focus for markets. Worries about a dismantling of the Phase 1 trade deal still looks premature even as China has fallen behind in terms of purchasing US imports.  The closure of the US consulate in Chengdu following the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston will be seen as a proportionate move, that is unlikely to escalate matters.  Nonetheless, a further escalation is inevitable ahead of US elections in November, with a broad array of US administration officials becoming more aggressive in their rhetoric against China.  As such, further sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies could be on the cards.

The week could prove critical for the US dollar given that it is breaching key technical levels against a host of currencies, with the currency failing to benefit from rising risk aversion recently. While not a game changer the European Union “recovery fund” is perceived as a key step forward for the EU, a factor underpinning the euro.  Key data and events over the week include the Federal Reserve FOMC meeting (Wed), US (Thu) and Eurozone Q2 GDP (Fri) and China purchasing managers indices (PMI) (Fri).  US Q2 earnings remain in focus too.  Before these data releases, today attention turns to the German IFO survey (consensus 89.3) and US durable goods orders (consensus 6.8%).

 

Don’t Fight The Fed, Markets Are Teflon Coated

The rally in equity markets since their late March lows has been tremendous.  Despite an unrelenting chorus of doomsayers who like me have worried about the shape of recovery, markets have been impervious to bad news.  At the end of last week the May US employment report provided the latest catalyst to boost markets, after the release of data showing a shock 2.5 million increase in non-farm payrolls compared to consensus expectations of a 7.5 million decline.  The unemployment rate also surprisingly fell, to 13.3%, compared with 14.7% in April.  The data was taken as an indication that the US economy was resuming activity more quickly than expected.   As a result, the S&P 500 closed 2.6% higher on the day and almost 5% higher over the week. Another support factor for markets over the week was the European Central Bank’s expansion of its stimulus package, adding a more than expected EUR 600 billion to its asset purchase programme.

The lesson here is to not fight the Fed.  While many of us have been looking at fundamentals and surmising that fundamentals do not justify the rally in stocks, the reality is that this rally is not about fundamentals, well at least fundamentals in the traditional sense of the word.  The Fed and global central banks have been pumping in vast quantities of liquidity via quantitative easing, and this has led a massive increase in money supply in excess of economic growth.  This excess has had to find a home and equities have been such a home.  As of last week the S&P 500 recorded its biggest ever 50-day rally, up 37.7% and shows no sign of turning even as forward price/earnings ratios look increasingly stretched and economic activity appears likely to return only slowly, not withstanding the jump in May payrolls.

There are clearly plenty of risks on the horizon as mentioned in my previous blog posts, with a key one being the fraught relationship between the US and China.  However, for now markets don’t really care or at least are choosing not to care.  What started as a narrowly based risk rally has increasingly drawn in a wider base of investors who have increasingly been caught in what is commonly termed as FOMO or the fear of missing out.  This is dangerous to say the least, as it suggests that investors are only jumping on to avoid missing out on the rally rather than due to any fundamental rationale.  Nonetheless, the risk of not joining the rally is to miss out on even further potential gains.  The rally in risk assets has continued to hurt the dollar, which slid further over the last week, but is looking somewhat oversold based on some technical indicators.

Direction this week will come from the FOMC meeting on Wednesday although it seems unlikely that the Fed will announce anything new.  Markets will be particularly watchful for any indication on whether the Fed is moving towards enhancing its forward guidance.  In the Eurozone, the Eurogroup meeting will garner attention as Finance Ministers discuss the EU’s proposed Recovery Fund.  In Asia, China’s May trade released earlier today data will set the tone for the week.  The data revealed that China’s May exports fell less than expected, dropping 3.3% y/y USD terms, while imports dropped much more than expected, falling by 16.7% y/y.   Importantly, Chinese imports from the US declined further, highlighting the lack of progress towards the targets set out in the “Phase 1” trade deal.

Tensions Take A Turn For The Worse

As highlighted in my post last week markets face “Risks of a body blow” amid an intensification of tensions between the US and China.  Such tensions have worsened over recent days in the wake of the decision announced at the start of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to draft national security legislation for Hong Kong, which would reportedly bypass the territory’s Legislative Council.

The news prompted a slide in Hong Kong equities, demonstrations in Hong Kong and a strong reaction from the US Secretary of State. Attention will also turn to whether China’s decision will push the US administration into imposing sanctions based on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed last year by Congress as well as remove the special trading status that Hong Kong enjoys with the US.

Unrelated to the above, but in line with the strengthening in non tariff measures being applied to China, the US Senate passed a bill that would effectively result in a de-listing any companies from the US stock exchange if they did not comply with US regulatory audits. In particular, Chinese company listings will be at risk given that many Chinese companies would fall into this category.  This follows hot on the heels of tougher restrictions on the sale of US technology, and the ordering of the main US federal government pension fund not to invest in Chinese equities.

Markets are right to be nervous, with tensions only likely to intensify ahead of elections, but as noted in my previous post, it seems highly unlikely that the US administration would want to tear up the “Phase 1” trade deal at this stage given the impact on domestic producers and consumers.  Instead expect more non trade measures, export controls, visa restrictions, etc, to move into place.  If the US economy/asset markets rebound more strongly, the risk of a breakdown in the trade deal will likely grow as the administration may have more confidence at that point.   Either way, the November 2020 presidential election will have a large bearing on policy towards China.

China can also not risk a major flare up in tensions at this stage given the pressure on its economy even as it has largely opened up post the Covid-19 lockdown measures.  The magnitude of the growth shock was on show last Friday, with the NPC dropping its growth target from its work report for the first time.  This was a prudent move given that growth this year is subject to much more uncertainty than usual in the wake of the Covid-19 shock, but it also suggests that Chinese authorities do not want to commit to the type of stimulus enacted in 2008, which resulted in a sharp build up in leverage in the economy.  GDP growth fell by 6.8% y/y in Q1 and is likely to come in at best around half of last year’s 6.1 rate.

As such, the risks to markets has moved from the virus (though second round infections remains a key risk to markets) to geopolitical.   Nor have economic risks have dissipated.  A cursory glance at data globally makes this obvious.  Markets have tried to look past the data, but risks remain high that growth recovery will be far more prolonged than is being currently priced in.  At some point, maybe soon, it will be hard to keep looking past the data, when what is in view is not pleasant at all.

 

 

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.

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