Trade War Relief, But How Much?
Finally, some trade war respite. Or at least, what looks like relief. Following week after week of steadily escalating threats and a few decisive actions (and retaliations) along the way, there was finally a joint statement of agreement between key global leaders. Following their meeting in Washington DC, US President Donald Trump and European Union President Jean Claude-Juncker issued a statement of success this past Wednesday. Any pause in this quickly ballooning threat to the global economic and financial order is welcome, but that doesn’t mean we should accept the event at face value.
Did this summit result in a legitimate course correction for the growing destructive force was the press conference a political event designed to allow both leaders to claim a victory for their constituents? To evaluate that, we need to consider the terms. There was a commitment made by the EU to purchase more US-produced soybeans and natural gas. That seems encouraging at first blush, but pressing individual members to increase consumption is not reasonable. Vows to continue working towards solutions to the metals tariffs and avoiding tax on autos along with the suggestion that they would work together towards ‘zero tariffs’ is likely more enthusiasm than a plan of action. Not everything was a means to score political point. The agreement not to introduce new tariffs so long as they were negotiating is material as it curbs fear of an impending 20 percent tariff on European autos by the US and the $300 billion retaliation threatened by the EU. This glad-handing may be lacking for tangible action, but it can help curb fears of imminent escalation.
That said, general capital market benchmarks – such as US equity indices – seemed little perturbed by actual progress in the economic fight these past few months. Let’s hope that aloofness and the fresh optimism holds moving forward, because this theme has not likely hit its crest. The largest threats have been made by the US against China. The Trump administration is likely putting tension on other fronts besides China as a means to amplify the leverage on this economic powerhouse. When the US eases back against developed world counterparts like EU, perhaps they expect those countries to ingratiate themselves to the US and head off critique for their handling of relationships with China. Don’t expect trade wars to truly be on the decline – much less resolved – with last week’s developments.
Fed, BoE and BoJ Rate Decisions for Individual and Collective Influence
The ECB rate decision this past week didn’t earn the Euro much in the way of productive volatility. Compare that to the speculation it drove – much to the central bank’s chagrin – throughout 2017. For many traders, that makes it an event to disregard. However, market participants would be wise to keep tabs on these fundamental themes for both their longer term influence on the target currency over the coming weeks and months; but it is arguably even more important to account for such events collective sway over more systemic matters like the inextricable link between global monetary policy and risk trends. It would be wise to consider these larger concerns through the week ahead as we wade into a run of central bank decisions.
On tap, we have five large central bank rate decision, but only three of them are ‘majors’. The greatest weight will be hefted by the Federal Reserve. In monetary policy terms, everything about this meeting will be well fleshed out by speculators. Through exceptionally transparent forward guidance, we know the group expects to hike four times this year and that they have operated ‘on the quarters’. This meeting is out of sync for that trend. The real interest is the language used to either maintain path to a September rate hike or to start pulling back from it. Furthermore, there will be some degree of interest to see if the Fed replies to the President’s critique of policy and the currency – though that may be more appropriate for individual members’ reflections. Meanwhile, the Bank of England’s (BoE) Super Thursday meeting is expected to deliver a hike (77% chance according to swaps) and the Quarterly Inflation report. This is the most action-oriented event, but it will compete with Brexit for Sterling momentum and scaling up to global risk trends is not something this group’s policies have been capable of in this cycle.
Finally, the Bank of Japan will no doubt keep its rates in place and the size of its stimulus program untouched. However, last week, reports surfaced that the group was discussing changing its stimulus approach to make it more ‘sustainable’. It is unclear exactly what that would entail, but given they are already at an extreme, it was read as a ‘hawkish’ shift. While these events can generate movement in their own currencies and local capital markets, do not underestimate the malleability of global risk trends under monetary policy. Years of excessive (extended well beyond the needs to stabilize growth and past the point of proving it would not readily translate into desired inflation) monetary policy has inflated market levels. It won’t be the wholesale withdrawal of stimulus across the board that will prompt sentiment rebalance but rather the anticipation normally associated to risk trends.
FANG Has Set Up Apple as a More Important Capital Market Driver
Earnings season has been mixed in the US thus far, but more important than the report of corporate numbers each trading session is the shift in bias surrounding these updates. There is considerable amount of ‘fudge’ room in reporting quarterly figures due to the dubious accounting allowances in GAAP (I obviously am not a fan). Yet, the details in questionable figures can be played up or played down depending on what the audience is willing to tolerate – or is actively seeking. With benchmark US indices struggling to regain the remarkably progress of 2017, sentiment has notably shifted towards earnings.
No longer are the impressive elements of comprehensive reports amplified and the disappointing downplayed. The shortcomings are starting to be interpreted more readily in the general shortcomings that are more apparent in other areas of the economy. It is against this backdrop that we have had a troubled quarter from the concentrated speculative leader in the FANG. For those not familiar, it is an acronym of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google – some of the largest and fasting growing market cap stocks in the world. The fact that they are also tech, which is the sector that has outperformed in US markets; and US equities which have outpaced most other liquid ‘risk’ benchmarks speaks to the concentration. As important as this group is, there support is starting to turn to borderline burden. Where Google and Amazon’s figures were positive (though they came with very clear caveats in fines and income), the Netflix and Facebook reporting were outright pained. The former dropped while the latter collapsed from record high to official bear market in a day.
Given what the FANG represents, the market has paid closer attention to the state of earnings and perhaps the bias that has been applied here so consistently. How to settle a 50/50 split in the FANG updates and the plateau established in the group’s price indexing? Add an ‘A’. Due Tuesday after the bell, Apple’s earnings will tap into key US tech firms and it has its own innate amplitude as the world’s largest market cap stock. It will be important whether it beats or misses, but even more crucial is how the market treats a better or worse outcome than expected. This event can carry far more weight than just the immediate reaction for AAPL shares.