China GDP Refocuses Speculative Attention from Monetary Policy to Growth
Last week, it was fairly clear that a particular fundamental theme had stepped up to take command of our attention. Monetary policy has garnered greater traction recently owing largely to speculation that the Federal Reserve will have to reverse its course of normalizing extreme accommodation and subsequently cap the responsibility for global investors to bear the exceptional risks in our financial markets on their own shoulders. This speaks to a familiar equation that we’ve seen take center stage through the unique growth phase of the past decade: where genuine economic potential lags, central banks can compensate by offloading risk to make anemic returns more attractive. The US central bank was the chief threat to that calculation of complacency after 200 basis points of tightening and a slow runoff of its balance sheet.
Moving forward, the Fed’s support or opposition to supplemented risk taking will still carry enormous weight, but the perspective is now one of ‘wait and see’ until the next rate decision on July 31st – where the markets are certain of a 25 bp cut and price a 20 percent probability of a 50 bp move.
In the meantime attention will likely shift to something with more immediate influence. For scheduled event risk through the week ahead, the top listing is arguably the Chinese 2Q GDP update. As an economic milestone for the world’s second largest individual economy, the gravity here is obvious. However, the implications run deeper than that. This is the official government-based growth reading that will set off the season of GDP readings, with the US figures due on Friday, July 26th. Furthermore, given China’s efforts to transition their economic dependency away from exports and onto domestic means as well as its central position in the ongoing trade wars, we are monitoring an integral player in the web of global health that is facing exceptional instability.
There is perhaps some reassurance to be found in this figure given that the government has substantial control over the economy and the reporting of the statistics. It is very unlikely that we register a severe shortfall. That said, the markets compensate for these measured movements with greater deference towards even small changes. What’s more, Asia’s economic health was already cast in shadow at the end of this past week. Singapore – the world’s 34th largest economy – reported a dramatic 3.4 percent quarter-over-quarter slump in the previous quarter. This series does have some history of volatility, but the bare growth of 0.1 percent annual expansion is unmistakably poor with the worst pace since the second quarter of 2009.
Pressure Increases Even Further for Trade War ‘Accidents’ and Especially for Contagion
The good will between the United States and China in their trade relations following the G-20 sideline meeting seems to have all but evaporated. Without meaningful progress to seed reasonable hope of reversing the large tariffs the countries have placed on each other, we are left to evaluate the growing tension on the periphery of their fraying relationship. This past week, senior officials in the Trump administration reportedly agreed that China had violated its sanctions on Iran by importing a million barrels of its oil, but there was no immediate agreement on how to respond. On the other side of the table, China has said it will sanction those US companies that were involved in the arms sale to Taiwan. While a full reversal on the trade war doesn’t seem to be in the cards through the foreseeable future, there seems little will at present to escalate the situation along its natural course of the US going ‘all in’ on all Chinese imports while China responds with even more unorthodox measures such as restrictions on rare earth materials.
Meanwhile, the pressure is ratcheting up outside the now-conventional channels of economic retaliation with the very real risk that all such efforts will be construed as some form of retaliation and escalation. Reports this past week that Trump had tasked aides to look into means to devalue the Dollar is immediately believable and a serious threat of destabilizing an already-troubled situation.
The President has repeatedly accused China and the EU of using monetary policy and other means to artificially weaken their respective currencies to afford ill-gotten advantage to their economies. While there are arguments that can be made to both cases, pursuing retribution at this juncture would be a severe threat. A related issue that will no doubt draw the attention of Trump and his advisors was the appointment of IMF Director Christine Lagarde to be the new leader of the ECB when Draghi steps down at the end of October. The IMF recently issued its review of the EU with advice that the region should continue to sport its enormous stimulus given conditions. That can easily be interpreted by a person or people looking for antagonism as a move to further advantage.
Another development that should be watched closely is France’s decision to move forward with a 3 percent digital tax on earnings made in France by large tech companies. Many of those companies that will face the levy are American, a fact that will not go unnoticed by the White House. With the UK considering a 2 percent tax of its own and the EU still moving forward with debates on a broad duty, there is a rising risk that the US pushes forward with the tens of billions in tariffs it has warned Europe over and perhaps even the adoption of a blanket tariff on auto imports. If this is the course we follow, take those atmospherical recession warnings more seriously.
US Earnings Season Starts with Recession Fears, Trade Fallout and Business Cycle Under Scrutiny
The second quarter US earnings season is due to start in earnest in the week ahead. We have already taken in a few noteworthy corporate updates these past weeks. Levi Strauss, who reported this past week, is the target for retaliatory tariffs from Europe while Micron and Fedex who offered updates two weeks ago find performance directly reflective of trade tension. While there are a few companies reporting that have overt exposure to strained Chinese relations, the high profile updates ahead will tap into other matters. Netflix’s report on Wednesday will look to leverage some of the influence that it enjoyed in previous years when tech shares paced US equities which in turn led the global view on risk appetite. However, lately, the FAANG members and collective seem to have lost the ear of the market. On the tech side, IBM’s update on the same day and Microsoft figures on Thursday will offer a more endemic growth picture.
Perhaps the most prominent theme to extract from this week of US earnings will be an important ‘cost’ of monetary policy accommodation from the Fed. The central bank is warning the engines for rate cuts, and most investors can only see benefit from the reversal with the moral hazard tide rolling back in. Yet, there are systemic risks associated to the fact that the group is so unnerved about the near future that it is contemplating easing despite still meaningful growth, not to mention the danger that could follow should the markets decide to lose confidence in central banks’ ability to fight off crises owing to their depleted resources.
In revenue terms, a drop in benchmark rates is often a burden to banks. While each cut in the overnight rate does not confer proportional burden to financial institutions’ margins while each hike adds to it, that is more often the case over cycles and particularly when we are attempting to lift rates off of long-term deflated levels. We are unlikely to see the fall out in this past three-month period’s returns from JPMorgan, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley; but their forward guidance for future profits can certainly offer up reference. Look beyond the single tickers’ response to their own financials and instead monitor the systemic repercussions.