The Trade War Spreads to More Critical, Global Growth Organs
We have been unofficially engaged in a global trade war since March 2018. That is when the United States moved forward with a tariff on imported metals (steel and aluminum) from any destination outside of the country. Since this opening salvo, there have been small actions against countries outside the singular focus of China, but the incredible escalation between Washington and Beijing has drawn most of the global attention. With tariff rates running as high as 30% on over $350 billion in goods between the two economies, it is no surprise that we evaluate the growth-crushing competitive efforts on the basis of these two superpowers alone. As it currently stands, we are still awaiting another wave of products receiving a hefty tariff rate upgrade in approximately two months’ time while talks are set to resume on Thursday between the two parties. That said, reports over the weekend indicated China was not impressed with the Trump administration’s most recent efforts to find middle ground. It is important to keep tabs on the situation between the US and China, but at this point the markets seem to place greater emphasis on the data that reflects the tangible repercussions of their fight. If you want to watch the next stage of painful escalation in this systemic threat, it seems clear that the tension between the US and the European Community is the emergent battlefield.
There are already a few active trade levies between these two largest developed world economies, but most of the systemic threats have been reserved to an escalation in mere threats….until now. This past week, the WTO (World Trade Organization) ruled that the United States could raise $7.5 billion in tariffs against the EU for unfair subsidies supporting the region’s principal airplane manufacturer, airbus. The US Trade Representative’s office wasted no time in moving forward with the punitive action. That itself is not a surprise nor even a serious controversy. What was provocative were the details of the United States’ plans. The country announced a 10% tariff on imported airplanes, but it would slap a far more punitive 25% tax on European agricultural and industrial goods. That is a move that registers more directly as a trade war action, moving well beyond the cover of WTO ‘sanction’ (the group urged negotiations) and encouraging reprisal. To their credit, the EU held back from retaliatory actions this past week, hoping that an understanding could be met. That said, they EC will not wait forever. It was reported that they were ready to react immediately before the ruling, and they have been quick to respond verbally to all of the US threats over the past months. If we go down this route of a trade war even half the scale of what the US and China have committed to, expect forecasts for global recession to change from an outlier of the pessimists to the baseline view of the investing masses.
A Near-Daily Update on Recession Fears
Until late August, the word ‘recession’ was only uttered by conspiracy theorists or serial pessimists. That reticence was despite a growing wave of economic data, sentient surveys and supranational organizations warning that a stall could be in he not-so-distant future. That isolation has dissipated quickly over just the past few months. The inversion of the US 10-year to 3-month yield curve was the first distinct cue that the market and then media picked up on. With a moniker like ‘economists’ favorite recession signal’, the headlines wrote themselves. Once attention was called to the frailty of the longest running expansion on record (at least in the US), the other holes started to become more overt. In the US, the NY Fed’s own recession indicator listed the probability of contraction for the world’s largest economy over the next 12 months above 30 percent – a signal that has indicated momentum into the genuine article in all but one instance going back decades. Meanwhile, the warnings from global groups have been taken more seriously: such as the OECD, WTO and IMF over these past two weeks – warning of significantly slower growth though not necessarily full contraction. Data has similarly indicated trouble from US and Chinese manufacturing contraction (‘recession’) to some full GDP readings around the world actually printing a negative monthly or even quarterly report – an official recession is two consecutive quarters of contraction according to the NBER.
Ultimately, the market determines what is important or market moving. We have seen numerous data points and warnings shrugged off by the markets over the past years because the speculative bias was such that market participants were happy to allow complacency to dictate a capital market drift higher. That does not seem our undercurrent at present however. Since the February 2018 plunge, we have seen a serious struggle among speculative interests to lift the markets back to their previously-set all-time highs, much less beyond them. The US indices were the most bubbly among the traditional risk assets and even they have not progressed far beyond the early 2018 swing high. Most other recognizable benchmarks are significant lower than their respective peaks from that year. In other words, the markets are paying closer attention to warning signs and are more willing to leverage their occurrence into meaningful market movement. With that setting in mind, there are a number of indicators this week that can stir our imaginations for the worst including: China service sector PMI; China foreign reserves; Eurozone investment sentient; Japan household spending; Germany industrial production; US small business sentiment; US consumer confidence; UK July GDP and Germany factory orders among many others. Keep tabs on the economic calendar as well as the headlines (Google search of ‘recession’ is quite informative).
Gold – When Fundamentals and Technicals Conflict
Gold is perhaps one of the indicative signals from the market as to the state of the global financial system and economy that you can find from any single source. The precious metal is a well-known safe haven, but its climb this past year has deviated significantly from the performance of fellow measures like the Dollar and sovereign debt not to mention risk assets like US indices. Its position as an alternative to traditional fiat is far more important. With central banks once again turning to expansive policy regimes while economic forecasts barely budge, there is a natural depreciation of all assets that represent this quandary: which includes currencies and government debt. There are few reliable alternatives to these traditional stores of wealth – especially when they are all dropping in tandem (Dollar, Euro, Pound, Yen). One of the very few, historical benchmarks that can meet the test is gold which is global and has played its role as a means for exchange many times through history. Given this unique role, consider the outlook for the economy and markets. Even if you don’t believe a recession is at the door, the threshold for significant expansion is very high at this point. Further, there is not much room for easy speculative gain but enormous room for retrenchment. Where would you seek safety and stability if push came to shove?
We – the market at large – were faced with that existential question to some degree this past week. On a technical basis, the precious metal took a remarkable bearish jog, a move that textbooks would place a high probability on fueling an overwhelming bearish trend. This past Monday’s drop cleared two months of range resistance that happened to also stand as the ‘neckline’ on a large head-and-shoulders pattern over the same period. There are few more preferred reversal measures among pattern watchers. If unencumbered by fundamental complications, speculative fear could have readily taken over and guided a more significant move for the bears. Instead, the reversal stalled immediately upon launch. This is the conflict that can arise when two favorite analytical techniques conflict. There is considerable debate over which measure is more indicative and reliable. In reality, they both have their merits and place. The backdrop and depth of catalyst can tip the scales of influence from one method to the other. Yet, if you are a trader willing to considerable a broader picture of the market in order to identify more reliable signals, it is better to find opportunities where the techniques coincide rather than conflict. Yet, in this world of contradiction, it is worth watching gold on a regular basis whether you intend to trade it or simply use it for signaling purposes.