Is This a US-China Trade War Turn We Can Rely In?
The market was struck with a broad sense of enthusiasm through the second half of this past week. There were a number of developments – or expectations for forthcoming events – that contributed to this buoyancy. The theme stirring the most optimism was anticipation that the United States and China were finally making progress in their 15-month trade war. Just before the New York close on Friday, officials announced that indeed they had found some middle ground for compromise. The question global investors should be asking is whether this is tangible and significant enough progress between the world’s two largest economies to foster enough confidence in the economic and financial outlook to beat back unrelated systemic concerns that continue to march forward – such as the fears of an impending recession. It certainly draws some measure of concern that the build up to the announcement was answered by a pullback when the news actually hit the wires (‘buy the rumor, sell the news’), though that may be a function of the twilight hour for liquidity.
To properly evaluate the heft of the ‘compromise’, we need to first understand what was agreed upon. An agreement by China to purchase $40-50 billion in US farm products was the most tangible improvement – though it will partially be working to offset trade restrictions suffered the past year. The most important agreement is the deferment of the 5 percent point increase in the tariff rate on $250 billion in imported Chinese goods to 30 percent due to take effect October 15, though it was not clear if this was completely off the table. After that, the measures are more ambiguous. The US vowed it would review its entities black list (though Huawei was not part of that consideration) as well as reconsider the decision to label China a currency manipulator. There was also language to suggest discussions would continue over one of the Trump administration’s principal issues, cracking down on intellectual property theft and subsidies for state run enterprises, but there was nothing approaching detail on enforcement.
There is certainly material to point to in this agreement, but it falls far short of the milestone whereby the leaders couldn’t just reverse course with little warning as they have done a number of times before, including after the June G20 agreement. The potential of a mere delay in the tariff rate hike isn’t nearly as concerning as the fact that the planned increase in the United States’ tariff list on December 15 was left in place – likely as pressure to speed along a deal. Further, China’s interest to loosen control over its economic and financial influence for IP enforcement, subsidies and American access to the Chinese economy will be very thin as the government faces the slowest pace of growth in three decades. There is significant interest on both sides of this standoff to find a compromise – President Trump wants to avoid a recession before the campaign season heats up and China wants to avoid too severe economic pressure that can further contribute to social unrest – but the struggle to secure superpower status can be powerful and the pain absorbed thus far can prove difficult to reverse. Market performance Monday will be very telling as to where sentiment stands on whether there is enough confidence in these two parties and whether their cooperation is even enough.
Hope for a Brexit Breakthrough Mounts Amid General Good Mood Market
Another ongoing political standoff that both carries broad economic / financial risk and found a seeming break in the cloud cover this past week was the Brexit negotiations. It was difficult to miss the market’s enthusiasm with a Sterling rally that translated into the biggest two-day GBPUSD rally in over a decade. The Pound has shown time and again that while it may feel some of the crosswinds buffeting the global markets, the status of the UK’s separation from the European Union is chief to its bearing and all other matters have their volume turned to zero when there are developments. So, how encouraging was the news this past week? Looking to the headlines, there were updates to reflect upon. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar stirred hope when they both offered enthusiasm after their meeting, saying there was a “pathway” forward as they discussed the contentious border. That was followed by a meeting between the EU’s main negotiator Michel Barnier and UK Brexit minister Stephen after which it was stated they 'look forward to these intensified discussions in the coming days'. Though nothing material has yet been agreed to, this seems like a meaningful break owing to the language alone. Neither side has voiced confidence in their discussions for some time, so this does represent a significant change.
With this modest progress, what are the scenarios moving forward? A full compromise on the Irish border would likely set up a true breakthrough for the extended Brexit with an actual deal in hand. If that progress if found, the British currency will continue to climb. While the health and bearing of the UK’s economy and markets will not be able to avoid other known and unforeseen crags, there is a substantial discount to afforded to the possibility of a no-deal outcome. On the other hand, if Johnson refuses to settle on his aggressive position with the country’s withdrawal, there remain certain insurance measures that can forestall imminent crisis. Parliament voted before its court-ordered, shortened suspension period that the PM would have to request an extension from the EU should no deal be struck by October 19. While he has been adamant on the timetable of the exit, it is unlikely he challenges a law, and the EU for its part likely has no interest in triggering a recession in any regional economy by refusing. Keep abreast of headlines that will inform us on the state of talks as well as the planned EU leaders summit on Thursday and Friday.
The IMF Updates Growth and Financial Stability Forecasts
While some cracks in the iron walls of global trade disputes seem to be providing a foundation for speculative enthusiasm heading moving forward, there are still serious fundamental encumbrances to a genuine bullish view of the future. Perhaps the most critical of the risks on the horizon is the threat that the global economy cannot avert its impending stall out. While trade wars have exerted material pressure on growth (the IMF director estimated the US-China fracas was going to cost the world $700 billion in GDP) and even more detriment through investor, consumer, business confidence; there are other – more natural – matters throttling growth. With the US enjoying its longest expansion and bull market on record, a moderation is overdue. I do not fully buy into the belief that periods of growth do not die of old age as there is limited resources that can be utilized to support such a period. That is especially true of the period we have experienced this past decade which has experienced bouts of extreme pace helped along by external and temporary influences such as monetary policy. Fed and other central banks have set their expansionary policy as a key strut to the health of the global economy. What is worrying is that this measure finds as much influence through self-reinforcing speculative belief as it does through genuine distribution of productive capital. That is why it is so troubling that recent waves of stimulus have not been met with the same conviction from market participants and disagreements among the policy setters threatens to further invite scrutiny.
In this fragile backdrop, we are expecting an important update on the economic health of the globe this week. In truth, there are important milestones on a weekly basis at this point – from monthly PMIs to sentiment surveys to warnings from supranational groups like the OECD. Yet, what we have on tap is both comprehensive and targeted to perhaps the most contentious situation in the global market. In the latter case, we are due the 3Q GDP reading from China. Though hope for an improved trade relationship with the US is warming markets, the absorbed effect of months of tariffs will show through in this lagging indicator. A poor showing is very likely (whether a new 30-year low or near the previously set figure) or otherwise the markets will treat it with deep skepticism. The only favorable aspect of this update from a trading perspective is that it occurs on Friday, so more anticipation in price action than actual discounting. As for the comprehensive view, we are awaiting the IMF’s updated forecast on world’ growth through its semi-annual WEO (World Economic Outlook). The week long meetings are anchored around this particular update and the new Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, has already signaled that the update would downgrade the perspective to the worst course since the Great Financial Crisis. Have her warnings already led the market to fully price in the pain? I will also be watching the groups GFSR (Global Financial Stability Report) very closely. Stability of the markets is one of the more critical accelerants to crises when things start to fall apart and the discussions around the effectiveness of monetary policy are starting to push these questions to the forefront.