Don’t Forget Trade Wars Aren’t Isolated to US-China
Trade wars remain my greatest concern for the health of the global markets and economy. There have been threats in the past where a localized fundamental virus has turned contagious to the rest of the world by unforeseen circumstances – such as the Great Financial Crisis whereby a US subprime housing derivative implosion infected the wider financial markets by destabilized a foundation built on excess leverage throughout the system. When it comes to trade wars though, there is no need to connect the dots. The systemic implications are apparent. The world’s two largest economies (and markets) are engaged in an escalating ****-for-tat economic conflict. There is little chance that the fallout from such a profound distress would be contained to these two contestants. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of finished goods and China is the principal buyer of the commodities. Whether appetite is trimmed owing to trade policy or stunted economic growth, its smaller trade partners would feel the pain.
Yet another organization that is warning over the risks these two are charging was the United Nations whose trade group said further planned escalations could severely impact GDP (it estimated ease Asian economies could drop by $160 billion), trigger currency wars and generally promote contagion. That said, the headlines this past week should raise serious concern among traders. Reports (and remarks) signal the White House does not expect a deal to be struck between the two countries by the end of the 90-day pause on the planned tariff hike. What’s more, sources say President Trump is not going to extend that date and intends to increase the tariff rate on the $200 billion in Chinese imports from 10 percent to 25 percent on March 2nd. That is a severe escalation and one that Chinese officials will not likely take in stride. As tensions rise, there is movement in Congress to curb the White House’s powers to pursue this economic war through its utilization of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 – this at the same time Trump is attempting to leverage more control.
As this effort progresses, it is important to remember that this is not playing out on a single front. Where it seemed that the United States’ pressure on Mexico and Canada via the NAFTA agreement was resolved by the creation of the USMCA, Congress is now signaling that it may reject the effort if material changes are not made. What’s more, we may see the pressure expand yet further. The loose threats by Trump to place tariffs on auto imports have been made multiple times over the past year. A deadline is finally in sight of this threat to potentially gain serious traction. Next Sunday, the Commerce Department is due to give its recommendations following its evaluation of auto imports. Given Secretary Ross’s disposition, it is likely to be a charged report. If the US were to implement tariffs on imported automobiles, the economic and diplomatic impact would be far more significant than what we have seen between the United States and China thus far. Global economic stagnation would follow soon in such a development’s wake.
Paying More Attention to Rates as Outlook Weakens
Monetary policy as a financial theme never truly lost any of its influence over the global markets these past years. However, investors’ attention has waned on this critical pillar of speculative reach as appetite for yield has solidified complacency. Yet, conditions are beginning to change with economic activity slowing and volatility in the capital markets picking up. That in turn draws attention back to the backstop that so many have based their convictions – whether they realized it or not. To some, fear that markets are at risk of retrenchment bolsters expectations that the largest central banks are going to step in to temper volatility and lift risk assets by flooding the system with cheap funding once again. For those whose confidence remains, they still consider the likes of the Federal Reserve (Fed), European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BOJ) forces of nature. Closer examination of these groups’ current policies and the available tools still at their disposal, however, should raise serious concern.
While the Great Financial Crisis is a decade behind us with growth having stabilized and markets surged in the period since, collective monetary policy has changed little. While the Fed may have raised its benchmark rate range over 200 basis points, none of its largest counterparts have moved significantly off of their own zero bound. Furthermore, there remains an enormous amount of stimulus awash in the system with central banks’ balance sheets bloated with government bonds, asset backed securities and even more traditional investor assets. If push comes to shove and markets started to avalanche lower despite the present mix of support still in place, what would these authorities be able to do muster in order to counterbalance? There is no meaningful capacity to lower global rates and QE has gotten to the point where its effectiveness draws as much cynicism as assurance.
Adding more support against a persistently incredulous market would only solidify the realization that central banks are no longer the effective backstop for speculators they once were. And then where do we expect to turn for help? A coordinated effort from global governments when they cannot even maintain existing trade deals? As our markets remain volatile and economic forecasts soften, expect scrutiny over monetary policy and its effectiveness to increase. We have seen that already take place with the market’s response to the Fed’s dovish shift and even the RBA’s and BOE’s growing concerns this past week. Rate decisions, speeches and even data close to policy mandates will leverage greater focus – and likely market reaction – moving forward.
Dollar Can Compensate for Issues By Advancing on Euro, Pound Pain
The Dollar is in a complicated fundamental position. There are numerous domestic issues that represent a serious fundamental weight on the benchmark currency but global troubles will consistently work to counteract the loss of altitude. Of course, the likelihood of a perfect equalization is highly improbable. One development or the other will prove more severe than was expected or the market will decide a particular issue is of far greater consequence to the financial system. It is not clear which node will trigger a tidal wave of capital market flows, so we need to keep tabs on those themes that will exert greater influence on the benchmark as the dominant force will likely arise from these known quantities. On the economic front, the US economy has shown signs of economic slowdown and a sharp drop in sentiment readings from consumers to businesses to investors. This was only accelerated by the US partial government shutdown and the risk that it closes once again is worryingly too high. The stopgap funding runs out on Friday.
The delayed economic readings with the status check before the shutdown impact was full felt are starting to trickle out and the GDP reading seems to be due next week. An ineffectual government looks to like it will increasingly be a core issue for the world’s largest economy moving forward with promising programs like infrastructure spending increasingly relegated to the dustbin of unrealized campaign promises. And of course, with the promise of economic wealth fading and sentiment withering, the Federal Reserve’s intention to further raise rates to establish a higher rate of return on US investments will naturally recede. Yet, all of these shortcomings will have powerful relative corrections. While the Fed may very well halt its monetary policy ambitious of the past three years, to stabilize at a 2.25-2.50 percent benchmark range while major peers like the ECB, BOJ and BOE shift to a dovish course from zero rates and expansive stimulus will maintain relative advantage to the Greenback.
Should risk aversion build globally, the Dollar has more investment interest premium built up over the past years that could leach away, but a tip into severe risk aversion (which would be difficult to avoid in a committed downturn) would leverage the currency’s absolute haven appeal. What’s more, where the political infighting in the US is more localized, it is not a unique trouble to the United States. Further, it is persistently applying greater pressure on trade counterpart around the world through the trade war. Perhaps one of the truly untested and underpriced risks to the Greenback however is the intentions of the US President. Over the past year, Trump has voiced his consternation over the level of the currency as an impediment to his strategy for course correct trade and perceived inequities to trade partners. In the event of universal risk aversion which puts serious pressure on the global economy, we are unlikely to see an effective collaboration across the world’s largest countries as the game theory in their competitive efforts will more likely intensity under the weight. With demand or Treasuries resulting in a rise for the Dollar, it would not be out of the question to imagine the White House responds with unorthodox policy aimed at driving the currency lower. The real trouble would only begin if the world’s largest player touched off a currency war.