There is Way Too Much for the G20 to Cover
Typically, the G-20 summits that brings together leaders for some of the world’s largest developed economies cover matters that are important but not especially urgent. For the meeting in Osaka, Japan this coming Thursday and Friday (June 28-29), the members will officially and unofficially have to cover topics of exceeding importance. That would seem unusual considering we are still in the longest bull market on record and the closest state to general peace that we’ve seen in some time. On the official agenda are: global economy; trade and investment; innovation; environment and energy; employment; women’s empowerment; development; and health. As you can imagine, there will be certain themes that are more loaded than others and likely to generate more friction in group discussion as well as sideline talks than others.
Trade wars will be the most frustrating topic to discuss for most of the members. In particular, the US and China have used this gathering as a timeline for the next stage of an ongoing trade war between the two economic giants. Since negotiations last broke down and the US raised its tariff rate on $200 billion in Chinese imports – to which China moved to match the tax on $60 billion in US goods – the rhetoric between the two has ranged between mild encouragement to outright threats. If President Trump’s timeline holds, the stakes are high for a breakthrough between the two. After the last move to raise the stakes, the White House said it would expand its onerous levy against its trade partner to encompass all of its goods coming into the US (another $300 billion or more) in ‘three or four weeks’. That time frame has come and gone which prompted negotiators to move out the deadline to a natural conversation between Trump and Xi at the summit.
If these two fail to come to an understanding in order to de-escalate their economic conflict, it will represent the biggest notional curb on growth thus far. It would also almost certainly usher in the next stage of unorthodox measures as the options for retaliation have expended standard arsenal. China cannot meet the US like-for-like with straightforward taxes and will therefore need to consider actions on rare earth materials, blacklisting US entities, US asset exposure levels, exchange rate manipulation and other as-yet unmentioned options. The circumstances between these two giants is enormous but it is even more desperate for the other countries around the world who are caught in the middle as collateral damage. Further, depending on how President Trump views the benefits-risk balance of the affair with China – and conversely Mexico and Canada – there is the persistent risk that the Trump administration could expand its trade vigilantism against host Japan, the Eurozone and many of the other G-20 members. One thing is clear from previous gatherings of state leaders, President Trump does not respond well to multiple countries ganging up on him whether through aggression or frustrated pleas for reason.
While trade will likely take up a disproportionate amount of the mental focus, there are further matters of flagging economic growth and geopolitical tensions to discuss. Trade is compounding a general cooling of economic activity and there is an unmistakable awareness as to the limitations of over-extended monetary policy. Further, protectionism is casting plans to offer more through burdened central banks and even plans for fiscal policy as provocative means to compete to the detriment of global peers. As for global relationships, there are many points of fray, but the only area where a military war seems a genuine risk at the moment is between the US and Iran. The downing of a US drone by Iran followed by reports that a retaliation was green lit then forestalled has raised the threat level enormously. Perhaps after these ‘manufactured’ issues are thoroughly covered, we will see a serious discussion on ingrained concerns like the environment and gender equality.
The Market Prefers Its Own Interpretation of the Fed’s Options
Sentiment in the global markets is a force of nature. It can readily overpower subtlety which is what happened this past week following the FOMC rate decision. At its ‘quarterly’ gathering, the world’s largest central bank held its policy mix unchanged with a benchmark rate at a range of 2.25 to 2.50 percent while its balance sheet efforts held trajectory. While the market had afforded an approximate 25 percent probability of a cut, there was little actual surprise and repositioning to be registered by the market. When it came to forecasts, however, there seemed to be outright disbelief; and the markets were willing to run with their own interpretations of what the future held. Looking to the group’s own Summary of Economic Projections (SEP), there was an official forecasts for no change to the current rate spread through the remainder of this year, one 25-basis point cut projected in 2020 and a subsequent rebound to our present altitude in 2021. That strayed dramatically from the market’s own debate over two or three cuts this year and further easing at a similar pace into 2020.
After the Fed’s attempt to throttle expectations, the markets only solidified its forecast with Fed Fund futures and overnight swaps showing the probability of three quarter-percent cuts this year rising to near certainty. Now, to be fair, the breakdown of the SEP’s rate forecasts shows an optimistic outlook for growth while the ‘blue dots’ indicated beyond the median vote that 8 members expected cuts and 7 of those assumed two 25bp moves. It would not be difficult to tip that balance should the economy start to flag more seriously. While capital markets are holding relatively steady through this disparity (and the Dollar has finally started to show the risk of lower returns and the economic state that would necessitate the response some deference), the divergent paths these forecasts represent are extreme and necessitate a convergence. That merging of views will come with significant market response whether it is speculative enthusiasm closing the gap to the central bank’s forecasts or vice versa.
Given the nature of speculation, we will be left with a state of hypervigilance around data and rhetoric from Fed officials that reinforces the market’s skepticism or contradicts it. There are many prepared speeches among various members scheduled this week. That is likely on purpose as members make an effort to reinforce forward guidance. The members more on the extremes of the policy curve will be important to watch but the centrists and Chairman Powell’s scheduled speech are arguably the most important. On the data side, the Fed’s favorite inflation indicator, the PCE deflator, is due. Keep tabs on forecasts for Fed intent, because the record high from the S&P 500 that encouraged other risk assets higher, has drawn much of its lift from favorable US monetary policy.
My Greatest Concerns: Recognizing Monetary Policy’s Bark is Bigger than Its Bite and Trade Wars Turn Into Currency Wars
While my greatest fears for the future are ultimately a global recession, financial crisis or the beginning of a global war (much less all three); there are certain intermediary events that are more probable and could more readily usher in those systemically disruptive states. And, as it happens, they relate to both the aforementioned concerns. As chaotic as trade wars seem to be through their development and potential risk to the norm, they are at least conducted in measured and definable steps. The Trump administration has signaled its intent and indicated the criteria for which would trigger further escalation or a walk back of existing burdens. The other countries engaging the US or other global players have done the same. It is true that the decisions to intensify or cool the fight have been flippant at times, but it seems to always followed a clear lines of tactics and escalation. This is not the same pace that is employed when the fight shifts to exchange rates.
Currency wars are inherently messy. They can confer significant economic benefit to those employing the tactics and detriment to all others. There is significant disagreement as to what constitutes a country pursuing this unfair line of policy which leads to fights out of sheer misunderstanding. And, ultimately, there is tendency for a retaliatory policy to escalate rapidly. We haven’t seen many genuine claims of currency manipulation over the past few decades, but the Japanese authorities were forced to quickly backtrack on a ‘misstatement’ and the Chinese Yuan has a permanent question mark next to it. That said, with trade wars underway and the US President not shy of labeling China’s and Europe’s currencies unfairly devalued, it seems risks now are far higher than they’ve been in generations. It is difficult to pull up from a currency war, and evidence shows these are not the leaders that are likely to let cool heads prevail.
The other escalation that plagues my fears is: what happens should the markets develop an unshakable sense of skepticism around central banks’ ability to maintain control? The past 10 years has enjoyed an unprecedented climb in capital markets and underwhelming average pace of expansion. The world’s largest central banks had to cut their rates to near zero and inject the system with extraordinary amounts of stimulus in order to make that happen. While we have long ago restored record highs for the likes of the Dow and seen GDP stabilize in expansionary territory, most of the banks kept going. The reasoning was that either the extreme support was needed to keep the peace or it was worth it to leverage just a little more growth. Regardless of the justification, it meant that there was very little effort to re-stockpile policy ammunition for any future troubles.
Now, as pressure seems to be building up once again, the markets are clearly looking to the Fed, ECB, BOJ and others to head off crises. If we were to reasonably evaluate what happens in the scenario where we face another slump, there should be little confidence that monetary policy could truly hold back the tide. That said, limitations for future troubles will start to trace back to an assessment of the current structure’s ability to keep the stability we currently enjoy. If central bank credibility were to truly falter, the fallout would be severe -all the more for the fact that it would commence from record high prices (with arguably a record gap to value).