Both Sides Will Lose

The trade story’s back in the news
With stock markets singing the blues
Two hundred bill more
Confirms the Trade War
Will happen, and both sides will lose

The Trump administration’s announcement last evening that they are targeting another $200 billion of Chinese imports for tariffs, this time 10% across the board, has interrupted the markets recent sense of calm. In fact, the immediate response was for equity markets around the world to fall sharply and the dollar to regain its footing. Investors had come to believe that the initial salvo of tariffs on $34 billion by each nation would be the extent of things, and that negotiations would soon begin. However, assuming things with this administration is a fraught activity as unpredictability has been Trump’s hallmark since his election.

It is interesting to consider the market ramifications of this growing trade war between the US and China. For instance, since March 22, the day the first tariffs were announced, the Shanghai Index is down more than 15% while the S&P 500 is higher by a bit more than 3.0%. While economists have ridiculed Trump’s statement that “trade wars are easy to win”, it certainly seems that the US has so far come out ahead, at least on this measure. At the same time, the Chinese renminbi has fallen ~5.6% over the same period, which could mean that investors are more confident that the US will come out ahead…or it could mean that the PBOC has simply forced guided the currency lower in an effort to offset the impact of the tariffs.

However, the one thing that I take away from this process is that neither side is going to back down anytime soon. As Trump is leading the charge, he is unlikely to back off without having won some major concessions from the Chinese. At the same time, Chinese President Xi, who has spent the past five years consolidating his power, cannot afford to look weak to the home crowd. So my advice is to prepare for higher prices on lots of things that you buy, because this is likely to drag on for a long time.

As an aside, while the politics may favor Xi, I think given the nature of the imbalance, where the Chinese not only have far more items that can be taxed, but that they remain a largely mercantilist economy depending on exports for growth, it means that China’s economic situation is likely to deteriorate far more than that of the US. However, it is not clear to me that I would call that ‘winning’!

At any rate, the one thing that seems almost certain is that the dollar is going to be a major beneficiary of this process. Not only are other currencies going to suffer as their nations’ exports are reduced and growth impaired, but the ensuing inflationary impact of tariffs on the US is going to encourage the Fed to be more aggressive. Given the dollar’s positive response to the tightening of Fed policy already, as well as the growing divergence between the US economy and the rest of the world, the brewing trade war has simply increased my dollar bullishness.

Pivoting to the overnight markets, the dollar has rallied for a second straight day, showing strength against all its G10 counterparts and most EMG currencies. There continues to be a dearth of data on which to base trading outcomes and it seems most likely that the dollar’s recent strength, while receiving a catalyst from the trade situation, is a continuation of its rebound from last week’s decline. In the end, the dollar is still largely range bound and has been so since its rally ended in mid May. I continue to believe we will need new data of note to encourage a breakout, with the next real opportunity tomorrow’s CPI print. A surprisingly high print will get tongues wagging over the Fed picking up the pace, and likely support the dollar. However, I don’t believe the opposite is true. A weaker than expected print will simply confirm that the Fed will stay on its current trajectory, which may not help the dollar much, but should not undermine it.

The other potential driver is going to be the general risk tone in markets. It is very clear that the dollar has regained its status as a safe haven, and with every escalation in the trade war, risk aversion will lead to further dollar strength. This is especially true given that the other potential havens, JPY and CHF, continue to offer negative interest rates and so are far less attractive to investors looking for a short-term home for their assets. To me, all the evidence still points to the dollar’s next leg being a move up potentially testing the levels seen back in the beginning of 2017 over time.

On the data front, this morning brings PPI (exp 0.2% for both headline and core) but all eyes will be on tomorrow’s CPI, not today’s number. We also hear from NY Fed President Williams late this afternoon. Given both the timing, some four weeks since the last FOMC meeting, and his elevated role, it is possible that he could create some volatility by adding new information to the mix. However, my read is that the data trajectory has remained quite steady, and although he will almost certainly mention the trade situation and its potential to upend the economy, I doubt there will be new information forthcoming. So in the end, I like the dollar to continue to grind higher as the day progresses.

Good luck
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