The tea leaves that everyone’s reading
‘bout trade talks claim risk is receding
Since Donald and Xi
desperate anxious to see
A deal that shows both sides succeeding
The equity market reaction
Has been one of great satisfaction
But bonds and the buck
Have had much less luck
As growth on both sides has lost traction
This morning is all about trade. Headlines blaring everywhere indicate that the US and China are close to ironing out their differences and that Chinese President Xi, after a trip through parts of Europe later this month, will visit the US at the end of March to sign a deal. It should be no surprise that global equity markets have jumped on the news. The Nikkei rose 1.0%, Shanghai was up 1.1% while the Hang Seng in Hong Kong rallied 0.5%. We have seen strength in Europe as well, (FTSE +0.5%, CAC +0.5%) although the German DAX is little changed on the day. And finally, US futures are pointing to a continuation of the rally here with both S&P and Dow futures currently trading higher by 0.25%.
However, beyond the equity markets, there has been much less movement in prices. Treasuries have barely edged higher and the dollar, overall, is little changed. It is pretty common for equity market reactions to be outsized compared to other markets, and this appears to be one of those cases. In fact, I would caution everyone about one of the oldest trading aphorisms there is, “buy the rumor, sell the news.” A dispassionate analysis of the trade situation, one which has evolved over the course of two decades, would indicate that a few months hardly seems enough time to solve some extremely difficult issues. The issue of IP (whether stolen or forced to be shared in order to do business) and state subsidies for state-owned firms remains up in the air and given that both these issues are intrinsic to the Chinese economic model, will be extremely difficult to alter. It is much easier for China to say they will purchase more stuff (the latest offer being $23 billion of LNG) or that they will prevent the currency from weakening, than for them to change the fundamentals of their business model. While positive trade sentiment has clearly been today’s driver, I would recommend caution over the long-term impacts of any deal. Remember, the political imperatives on both sides remain quite clear and strong, with both Presidents needing a deal to quiet criticism. But political expediency has rarely, if ever, been a harbinger of good policy, especially when it comes to economics.
Of course, one of the reasons that a deal is so important to both sides is the slowing economic picture around the world and the belief that a trade deal can reverse that process. Certainly, Friday’s US data was unimpressive with Personal Spending falling -0.5% in December (corroborating the weak Retail Sales data), while after a series of one-off events in December pumped up the Personal Income data, that too declined in January by -0.1%. The ISM numbers were softer than expected (54.2 vs. the 55.5 expected) and Consumer Confidence slumped (Michigan Sentiment falling to 93.7). All in all, not a stellar set of data.
This has set up a week where we hear from three key central banks (RBA tonight, Bank of Canada on Wednesday and ECB on Thursday) with previous thoughts of policy normalization continuing to slip away. Economic data in all three economic spheres has been retreating for the past several months, to the point where it is difficult to blame it all on the US-China trade situation. While there is no doubt that has had a global impact (look at Germany’s poor performance of late), it seems abundantly clear that there are problems beyond that.
History shows that most things have cyclical tendencies. This is especially true of economics, where the boom-bust cycle has been a fact of life since civilization began. However, these days, cycles are no longer politically convenient for those in power, as they tend to lose their jobs (as opposed to their heads a few hundred years ago) when things turn down. This explains the extraordinary effort that even dictators like President Xi put into making sure the economy never has a soft patch. Alas, the ongoing efforts to mitigate that cycle are likely to have much greater negative consequences over time. The law of diminishing returns virtually insures that every extra dollar or euro or yuan spent today to prevent a downturn will have a smaller and smaller impact until at some point, it will have none at all. It is this process which drives my concern that the next recession will be significantly more painful than the last.
So, while a trade deal with China would be a great outcome, especially if it was robust and enforceable, US trade with China is not the only global concern. Remember that as the trade saga plays out.
Aside from the three central bank meetings, we also get a bunch of important data this week, culminating in Friday’s payroll report:
|Tuesday||New Home Sales||590K|
|Fed’s Beige Book|
|Unit Labor Costs||1.6%|
|Average Hourly Earnings||0.3% (3.3% Y/Y)|
In addition to all this, we hear from four more Fed speakers, including Chairman Powell on Friday. It seems increasingly clear that Q1 growth has ebbed worldwide compared to the end of last year, and at this point, questions are being raised as to how the rest of the year will play out. Reading those tea leaves is always difficult, but equity markets would have you believe, based on their recent performance, that this is a temporary slowdown. So too, would every central banker in the world. While that would be a wonderful outcome, I am not so sanguine. In the end, slowing global growth, which I continue to anticipate, will result in all those central bankers following the Fed’s lead and changing their tune from policy normalization to continued monetary support. And that will continue to leave the dollar, despite President Trump’s latest concerns over its strength, the best place to be.