There once were two countries that fought
‘bout trade as each one of them thought
The other was cheating
By champions both of them sought
They sat down to seek a solution
So both could avoid retribution
But talks have been tough
And not yet enough
To get a deal for execution
The US-China trade talks continued overnight, and though progress in some areas has been made, clearly it has not yet been enough to bring in the leadership. The good news is that the talks are set to continue next week back in Washington. The bad news is that the information coming out shows that two of the key issues President Trump has highlighted, forced technology transfer and subsidies for SOE’s, are nowhere near agreement. The problem continues to be that those are pillars of the Chinese economic model, and they are going to be loath to cede them. As of this morning, increased tariffs are still on the docket for midnight, March 2, but perhaps next week enough progress will be made to support a delay.
Equity markets around the world seemed to notice that a deal wasn’t a slam dunk, and have sold off, starting with a dull session in the US yesterday, followed by weakness throughout Asia (Nikkei -1.1%, Shanghai -1.4%). Interestingly, the European markets have taken a different view of things this morning, apparently attaching their hopes to the fact that talks will continue next week, and equity markets there are quite strong (DAX +1/0%, FTSE +0.4%). And the dollar? Modestly higher at this time, but overall movement has been muted.
Asian markets also felt the impact of Chinese inflation data showing CPI fell to 1.7% last month, below expectations and another indication that growth is slowing there. However, the loan data from China showed that the PBOC is certainly making every effort to add liquidity to the economy, although it has not yet had the desired impact. As to the renminbi, it really hasn’t done anything for the past month, and it appears that traders are biding their time as they wait for some resolution on the trade situation. One would expect that a trade deal could lead to modest CNY strength, but if the talks fall apart, and tariffs are raised further, look for CNY to fall pretty aggressively.
As to Europe, the biggest news from the continent was political, not economic, as Spain’s PM was forced to call a snap election after he lost support of the Catalan separatists. This will be the nation’s third vote in the past four years, and there is no obvious coalition, based on the current polls, that would be able to form. In other words, Spain, which has been one of the brighter lights in the Eurozone economically, may see some political, and by extension, economic ructions coming up.
Something else to consider on this issue is how it will impact the Brexit negotiations, which have made no headway at all. PM May lost yet another Parliamentary vote to get the right to go back and try to renegotiate terms, so is weakened further. The EU does not want a hard Brexit but feels they cannot even respond to the UK as the UK has not put forth any new ideas. At this point, I would argue the market is expecting a delay in the process and an eventual deal of some sort. But a delay requires the assent of all 27 members that are remaining in the bloc. With Spain now in political flux, and the subject of the future of Gibraltar a political opportunity for domestic politics, perhaps a delay will not be so easy to obtain. All I know is that I continue to see a non-zero probability for a policy blunder on one or both sides, and a hard Brexit.
A quick look at the currency markets here shows the euro slipping 0.2% while the pound has edged higher by 0.1% this morning. Arguably, despite the Brexit mess, the pound has been the beneficiary of much stronger than expected Retail Sales data (+1.0% vs. exp +0.2%), but in the end, the pound is still all about Brexit. The sum total of the new economic information received in the past 24 hours reaffirms that global growth is slowing. Not only are inflation pressures easing in China, but US Retail Sales data was shockingly awful, with December numbers falling -1.2%. This is certainly at odds with the tune most retail companies have been singing in their earnings reports, and given the data was delayed by the shutdown, many are wondering if the data is mistaken. But for the doves on the Fed, it is simply another point in their favor to maintain the status quo.
Recapping, we see trade talks dragging on with marginal progress, political pressure growing in Spain, mixed economic data, but more bad news than good news, and most importantly, a slow shift in the narrative to a story of slowing growth will beget the end of monetary tightening and could well presage monetary ease in the not too distant future. After all, markets are pricing in rate cuts by the Fed this year and no rate movement in the ECB (as opposed to Draghi’s mooted rate hikes later this year) until at least 2020. The obvious response to this is…add risk!
A quick look at today’s data shows Empire State Manufacturing (exp 7.0), IP (0.1%), Capacity Utilization (78.7%) and Michigan Sentiment (94.5). We also have one last Fed speaker, Raphael Bostic from Atlanta. Virtually all the recent Fed talk has been about when to stop the balance sheet runoff, with Brainerd and Mester the latest to discuss the idea that it should stop soon. And my guess is it will do just that. I would be surprised if they continue running down the balance sheet come summer. The changes going forward will be to the composition, less mortgages and more Treasuries, but not the size. And while some might suggest that will remove a dollar support, I assure you, if the Fed has stopped tightening, no other nation is going to continue. Ironically, this is not going to be a dollar negative, either today or going forward.
Good luck and good weekend