Trade war heats up

After the US administration announced that it will impose tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports to the US, China responded by announcing retaliatory tariffs on $60 billion of US goods.

The US tariffs of 10% will be implemented on September 24.  The tariffs could rise to 25% by the beginning of next year if no deal is reached between the US and China. This is important as it implies some breathing space for a deal and means that the immediate impact is less severe.

There have been some exemptions on goods that were on the original list including smart watches and Bluetooth devices. Aside for allowing time for negotiation the delay in increasing to 25% to 1 Jan 2019 also gives US manufacturers time to look for alternative supply chains.

The reality is that these tariffs should not be surprising. There has been little room for compromise from the beginning. China wants to advance technologically as revealed in its “Made In China 2025” policy as part of its efforts to escape the so-called middle income trap by fostering technological progress and movement up the value chain.

In contrast the US clearly sees China’s policy as a threat to its technological dominance especially as the US holds China responsible for intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers.US administration hawks including trade advisor Peter Navarro and US trade representative Lighthizer were always unlikely to accept anything less than a full blown climb down by China, with moderates such as Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and head of the National Economic Council Kudlow unable to hold enough sway to prevent this.

President Trump stated that if China retaliates the US will pursue further tariffs on the remainder of $267bn of Chinese imports. This now looks like a forgone conclusion as China has retaliated.

Further escalation from China could target US energy exports such as coal and crude oil. China could also target key materials necessary for US hi-tech manufacturers. Another option for China given the lack of room for tit for tat tariffs is to ramp up regulations on US companies making it more difficult to access Chinese markets. It could give preference to non-US companies while Chinese media could steer the public away from US products. Such non trade measures could be quite impactful.

It seems unlikely that after allowing a rapid fall in the renminbi (CNY) and then implementing measures to stabilise the currency (in trade weighted terms) China would allow another strong depreciation of the CNY to retaliate against US tariffs. Even so, as long as China can effectively manage any resultant capital outflows and pressure on FX reserves, it may still eventually allow further CNY depreciation versus the USD amid fundamental economics pressures.

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Central banks in focus this week

Several central bank decisions are on tap this week including Japan (BoJ), Switzerland (SNB), Norway (Norges Bank), Brazil (BCB) and Thailand (BoT).  Among these only the Norges Bank looks likely to hike rates.

US data is largely second tier this week, with August housing data due for release.  After a run of weak readings a bounce back in starts and existing home sales is expected.   RBA minutes in Australia and NZ Q2 macro data are also in focus.

Political events will garner most attention, with the delayed announcement on China tariffs ($200bn) possible as early as today after being delayed due to the consideration of revisions raised via public comment.  Another twist in the saga is that China is considering declining the US offer of trade talks given the recent Trump threat of fresh tariffs (WSJ).

Other political events include Japan’s LDP election and US trade negotiations (assuming China participates) at the end of the week.   A few Brexit events this week include the General Affairs Council and Informal EU Summit.

 

FX Tension

On September 22 1985 the governments of France, West Germany, Japan, US and UK signed the Plaza Accord which agreed to sharply weaken the USD. At this time it was widely agreed that the USD was overly strong and needed to fall sharply and consequently these countries engineered a significant depreciation of the USD.

It is ironic that 25 years later governments are once again intervening in various ways and that the USD is once again facing a precipitous decline as the Fed moves towards implementing further quantitative easing. This time central banks are acting unilaterally, however, and there is little agreement between countries. For instance Japan’s authorities found no help from the Fed or any other central bank in its recent actions to buy USD/JPY.

So far Japan’s FX interventions have been discreet after the initial USD/JPY buying on 15 September. The fact that Japan is less inclined to advertise its FX intervention comes as little surprise given the intensifying pressure from the US Congress on China for not allowing its currency, the CNY to strengthen. Tensions have deepened over recent weeks and the backing of a bill last week by an important Congressional committee to allow US companies to seek tariffs on Chinese imports suggests that the situation has taken a turn for the worse.

The softly softly approach to Japan’s FX intervention and US/China friction reflects the fact that unlike in 1985 we may be entering a period in which currency and in turn trade tensions are on the verge of intensifying sharply against the background of subdued global economic recovery.

The Fed’s revelation that it is moving closer to implementing further quantitative easing has shifted the debate to when QE2 occurs rather than if, with a November move moving into focus. Clearly the USD took the news negatively and will likely remain under pressure for a prolonged period as the simple fact of more USD supply weighs heavily on the currency. Markets will be able to garner more clues to the timing of QE2, with a plethora of Fed speakers on tap over coming days.

This week the US economic news will be downbeat, with September consumer and manufacturing confidence surveys likely to register declines, with consumer sentiment weighed down by the weakness in job market conditions. Personal income and spending will also be of interest and gains are expected for both. There will be plenty of attention on the core PCE deflator given that further declines could give clues to the timing of QE2.

Attention in Europe will centre on Wednesday’s recommendations for legislation on “economic governance” from the European Commission. Proposed penalties for fiscal indiscipline may include withholding of funding and/or voting restrictions but such measures would be politically contentious. Measures to enforce fiscal discipline ought to be positive for markets given the renewed tensions in peripheral bond markets in the eurozone.

The EUR was a major outperformer last week benefiting from intensifying US QE speculation and will set its sights on technical resistance (20 April high) around 1.3523 in the short-term. Notably EUR speculative positioning has turned positive for the first time this year according to the CFTC IMM data, reflecting the sharp shift in speculative appetite for the currency over recent weeks. The EUR has been surprisingly resilient to renewed sovereign debt concerns and similarly softer data will not inflict much damage to the currency this week.

Key events for FX markets this week

Key events this week include the Fed FOMC and G20 meetings .  The G20 meeting is likely to be a non-event as far as markets are concerned.  There will be plenty of discussion about co-ordinating exit strategies but officials are set to repeat the commitment to maintain stimulus policies until recovery proves sustainable.  

There is likely to be little emphasis on currencies despite the fact that the dollar is trading around its lowest level in a year, except perhaps at the fringes of the meeting, with focus in particular on Japan’s new government’s pro yen policy.  

Regulation will also figure high amongst the topics debated but this will have little impact on markets over the short term.  Another topic that could be debated is protectionism, especially in light of the US decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tyres.

Ahead of the G20 meeting the Fed FOMC meeting is unlikely to result in any change in interest rates but the statement is likely to be cautiously upbeat in line with Fed Chairman Bernanke’s recent comments that the recession is “very likely over”.  The statement will be scrutinised for clues to the timing of policy reversal, especially given recent speculation that a couple of FOMC members were advocating an early exit.  Given that the dollar has suffered due to its funding currency appeal, any hint that some Fed officials are turning more hawkish could give the currency some much needed relief but we doubt this will last long. 

In contrast to speculation of a hawkish shift in thinking by some Fed members the Bank of England appears to be moving in the opposite direction.  The MPC minutes on Wednesday will be viewed to determine just how close the BoE was to extending quantitative easing and reducing interest rates on bank reserves at its last meeting. 

Sterling (GBP) has been a clear underperformer over recent weeks and a dovish tint to the minutes will act as another factor weighing on the currency as speculation over further action intensifies ahead of the next meeting.  

Sterling is also struggling against the euro having hit a five month low.  A combination of factors have hit the currency including concerns about quantitative easing expansion, the health of the banking system, and the latest blow coming from a the Bank of England in its Quarterly Bulletin where it states that GBP’s long run sustainable exchange rate may have fallen due to the financial crisis.   

Against this background it is not surprising that sterling was the only major currency against in which speculative positioning actually deteriorated versus the dollar last week (according to the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders report).   It is difficult to see any sterling recovery over the short term against this background, with a re-test of the 9 July low just under GBP/USD 1.60 in focus.

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