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Trade war hits the gas; recession signals increase; Jackson Hole let down - DailyFX Key Themes

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JohnDFX

Reckless Acceleration of the Trade War

With the global (including the US and China) economy already straining under the weight of the ongoing trade wars, the two largest individual economies too steps this past week to leverage the pressure even higher. As expected, China felt it necessary to respond to the upgraded efforts  announced by President Trump on a staggering $300 billion more in Chinese goods – the ‘rest’ of the country’s imports that weren’t already facing a tax. It seems the White House considered the phased application of the 10% duty between September 1 and December 15 was a show of good will, but Beijing did not. The response from Beijing of its own staggering of $75 billion in tariffs between those same dates as well as the return of a 25 percent tariff on US auto imports previously paused in April was somewhat surprising as the country is not in a particular strong position to match like-for-like taxes on the other country’s goods, a reality reflected in their allowance of the USDCNH to overtake 7.0000. This automated offset to direct charges from the United States responded as intended with a charge to a fresh record high through Friday’s close, and subsequent strong follow through into Monday’s Asia open to surpass 1.5 percent in a mere three days. It seems Washington’s strategy is following the shock-and-awe model as the President announced a further step mere hours after China’s response to the previous step. He upped the rate on all those tariffs already in place (25 to 30% on $250 billion) and those that are due to be imposed (10 to 15% on $300 billion). Yet, that ‘floating’ exchange rate will remain a point of frustration for the administration as it allows China more cushion to ‘wait out the President’. 

It is very likely that Trump is intent on forcing China – who it is suggested intends to hold out until the election – to avoid rolling the US economy into a stall out that makes his reelection chances very difficult. While it perhaps seems a war devolving away from strategy, there are absolutely objectives on both sides, they just happen to be very rudimentary. While officials may very well have a cutoff point at which they intend to throw the breaks on the war, I believe we are already passed the point of no return. The leaders of these respective economies likely recognize this inevitability as well – Trump stated recently that a ‘short’ recession would be worth it if it changed China’s habits. At the point that these governments see a near-term recession as a foregone conclusion, they will revert to strategy aimed at safe guarding their long-term status in the global economy. While it may seem the US has the leg up on the trade war scale, China’s leadership has more breathing room against re-election pressure. This is a fight from which the participants cannot easily extricate themselves.  

The Ominous Approach of a Stalled Global Economy 

As the fighting in global trade escalates, the outlook for economic activity steadily erodes. There are certainly a number of data points and forecasts that project ominously for key local economies – and the aggregate global health by proxy – but it isn’t the number of flashing red lights that speaks to the inevitability of growth stalling out. It has a lot to do to the awareness of trouble an subsequent anticipation that is formed from these increasingly-perceptible readings. President Trump has repeated the claim frequently as of late that the news outlets are pushing fears of a recession in a bid to push self-fulfilling prophecy in a bid to oust his administration at the next election. While most news agencies work on an ad model that benefits from some measure of panic (‘if it bleeds, it leads’), engineering a regime change is far-fetched. That said, the purveyors of news inevitably play a role in the evolution of sentient among consumer, business leaders and investors. 

In reporting the subsequent inversion of the 2-10 Treasury yield curve this past Thursday or the troubled mix of data from the global August PMIs (timely proxy for GDP), they are raising awareness of the unfavorable environment in which there is tangible risk in making large purchases, ramping capital expenditures or adding to existing ‘risk’ positions. Falling into step with such troubling forecasts has more to do with human nature than any ploy and perhaps any sense of inevitability. Even though we are deep in an economic and investment growth cycle, it is always possible to stretch it out even further. Yet, pushing those in control of expenses to reach further increasingly marginal returns or gratification (from purchases) at the growing risk of losses to jobs, revenue or capital, requires greater and greater suspension of belief in traditional ‘value’. Unfortunately, the hope for tax cuts, infrastructure spending and monetary policy gearing does not offset the realities of an economy that has run out of traditional fuel and quickly burning through its reserves. 

Jackson Hole Symposium: The Vows of Unlimited Economic Support Ring Hollow 

With global investors showing obvious concern at the state of affairs around the world where governments are pursuing policy aimed at fostering growth at the expense of others and bursts of volatility continue to flash danger on many account statements (the S&P 500’s three worst single-day declines this year were all in August), it is natural for traders to seek out a savior. In textbook terms, a rise in risk would encourage a proportional response from market participants in reducing their exposure. Yet, that is clearly not the regime we have been operating in these past years – and frankly that has rarely ever been the case as speculation is an inevitability (and why I do not ascribe to the efficient market hypothesis). Often, the stalwarts of the financial system suggest their views of optimism or pessimism are based purely on the backdrop of economic growth, but their assessments are necessarily more complicated than just a single GDP projection pulled out of thin air. The scenarios of trade wars (both benefit and detriment), diverted capital flow owing to background policy change and monetary policy are more informative of our course moving forward than the linear projections of dated indicators like the quarterly growth figures from governments. So, when we are pressed to evaluate the heaviest influences for surprising risk and sustaining positive growth, there is no greater power than the world’s largest central banks. 

For a decade, they have flooded the system with cheap funds with a stated goal of encouraging growth, but through a less-often admitted means of what amounts to ‘trickle down wealth’. There was actually a point during the Bernanke era that the Fed Chairman stated clearly that they were attempting to spur underlying economic growth by supporting financial venues. Well, over the past years, this mechanism to support expansion has clearly diminished in power. A Dollar, Euro or Yen of stimulus has translated into increasingly infinitesimal growth. Most investors recognized this diminished capacity but were willing to overlook the traditional conduit of performance so long as these same central banks could reduce their personal risk through their efforts. It is the unmistakable failing on that implicit effort that poses more significant threat to market’s moving forward. That is why there was so much attention being afforded to what the leaders of the financial and monetary authorities would say at the weekend Jackson Hole Symposium. It is also why it was virtually impossible to truly live up to the demands of market participants. Their assurances to do ramp up a weak response to another downturn with extremely limited capabilities certainly does not.

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