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.

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.

China Trade talks, ECB, BoE and CBRT

Today marks the most interesting day of the data calendar this week.  Central banks in the Eurozone (ECB), UK (BoE) and Turkey (CBRT) all announce policy decisions while US CPI (Aug) is released.  The ECB and BoE meetings should be non events.  The ECB is likely to confirm its €15 billion per month taper over Q4 18.  The BoE monetary policy committee is likely have a unanimous vote for a hold.

The big move ought to come from Turkey.  They will need to tighten to convince markets that the central bank it is free from political pressure and that it is ready to react to intensifying inflation pressures.  A hike in the region of 300 basis points will be needed to convince markets.   This would also provide some relief to other emerging markets.

The big news today is the offer of high level trade talks from US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to meet with Liu He (China’s top economic official), ahead of the imposition of $200bn tariffs (that were supposedly going to be implemented at end Aug).  This shows that the US administration is finally showing signs of cracking under pressure from businesses ahead of mid-term elections but I would take this with a heavy pinch of salt.

Mnuchin appears to be increasingly isolated in terms of trade policy within the US administration. Other members of the administration including Navarro, Lighthizer, and Bolton all hold a hard line against China.  Last time Mnuchin was involved in such talks with China in May they were derailed by the hawks in the administration.  So the talks could mark a turning point, but more likely they are a false dawn.  That said it will provide some relief for markets today.

Eurozone contagion spreading quickly

Contagion from the eurozone debt crisis is spreading quickly, threatening to turn a regional crisis into a global crisis. As highlighted by Fitch ratings further contagion would pose a risk to US banks. Consequently risk assets continue to be sold but interestingly oil prices are climbing. Taken together with comments earlier in the day from the Bank of England that failure to resolve the crisis will lead to “significant adverse effects” on the global economy, it highlights the risks of both economic and financial contagion.

Predominately for some countries this is becoming a crisis of confidence and failure of officials to get to grips with the situation is resulting in an ever worsening spiral of negativity. Although Monti was sworn in as Italian Prime Minister and Papademos won a confidence motion in the Greek parliament the hard work begins now for both leaders in convincing markets of their reform credentials. Given that there is no agreement from eurozone officials forthcoming, sentiment is set to worsen further, with safe haven assets the main beneficiaries.

EUR/USD dropped sharply in yesterday’s session hitting a low around 1.3429. Attempts to rally were sold into, with sellers noted just below 1.3560. Even an intensification of bond purchases by the European Central Bank (ECB) failed to prevent eurozone bond yields moving higher and the EUR from falling.

Against this background and in the absence of key data releases EUR will find direction from the Spanish 10 year bond auction while a French BTAN auction will also be watched carefully given the recent increase in pressure on French bonds. Having broken below 1.3500, EUR/USD will aim for a test of the 10 October low around 1.3346 where some technical support can be expected.

US data releases have been coming in better than expected over recent weeks, acting to dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing and in turn helping to remove an impediment to USD appreciation. While the jury is still out on QE, the USD is enjoying some relief from receding expectations that the Fed will forced to purchase more assets. Further USD gains are likely, with data today including October housing starts and the November Philly Fed manufacturing confidence survey unlikely to derail the currency despite a likely drop in starts.

Contrasting US and European data

While the week is likely to commence in a positive mood as political uncertainties in Greece and Italy ease somewhat, there are still plenty of uncertainties that could derail risk appetite. In particular, there has been little progress on agreeing on further details on leveraging the EFSF bailout fund. Moreover, many are looking to the European Central Bank (ECB) to take up the role as lender of the last resort. Indeed, the difficulty of the EFSF debt issue last week to garner demand puts the onus firmly on the ECB.

While it is likely that the ECB will have to step up its bond purchases especially given the heavy bond supply this week from Italy, France and Spain, the ECB is very reluctant to take up this mantle. As a result, peripheral and increasingly core bond market sentiment will remain fragile while the EUR will be vulnerable to a drop lower, especially given how rich it looks around current levels close to 1.38 versus USD. The week will likely be one of selling risk on rallies.

Data releases this week will show some contrasts between the US and Europe. US data will further dampen expectations of more Fed quantitative easing, with October retail sales and industrial production set to register gains and November manufacturing surveys likely to bounce. Several Federal Reserve speeches this week will shed more light on the FOMC’s stance and likely some support for purchases of mortgage backed securities will be reiterated.

In contrast eurozone data will show further deceleration. Industrial production in September is likely to have dropped sharply while the German ZEW investor confidence survey is set to have dropped further in November. Even an expected bounce in eurozone Q3 GDP will do little to stave off recession concerns given that growth in the final quarter of the year will have been much weaker. Banking sector develeraging will only add to growth concerns as credit expansion in curtailed.

In FX markets, the risk currencies will be vulnerable to selling pressure. EUR/USD has rebounded having tested highs around 1.3815 this morning but its gains look increasingly fragile. USD/JPY continues to grind lower, with no sign of further intervention from the Japanese authorities. Elevated risk aversion and the narrow US yield advantage continues to support the JPY making the job of weakening the currency harder. GBP has done well although it has lagged the EUR against the USD over recent days. A likely dovish stance in the Bank of England (BoE) quarterly inflation report will see GBP struggle to extend gains above 1.60 against the USD.

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