Waiting to See

At midnight the US imposed
The tariffs that Trump had disclosed
We’re waiting to see
How President Xi
Responds, or if China’s now hosed

It’s all about the tariffs this morning as the US increased the tariff rate on $200 billion of Chinese imports to 25% as of midnight last night. China has promised to retaliate but has not yet announced what they will do. One of the problems they have is they don’t import that much stuff from the US, so they cannot match it exactly. There was an unintentionally humorous article in Bloomberg this morning that tried to outline the ‘powerful’ tools China has to respond; namely selling US Treasuries, allowing the CNY to weaken further, or stop buying US soybeans. The humor stemmed from the fact that they basically destroyed their own arguments on the first two, leaving just the soybean restriction as potentially viable and even that is problematic.

Consider the Treasury sales first. As the Chinese own ~$1.1 trillion, if they sold a significant chunk, they would almost certainly drive US yields higher as Treasury prices fell. But two problems with this are; they would undermine the value of whatever bonds they retained and more problematically, what else would they do with the dollars? After all, the Treasury market is pretty much the only one that is large enough to handle that type of volume on a low risk basis. I guess they could convert the dollars to euros and buy Italian BTP’s (there are a lot of those outstanding) but their risk profile would get significantly worse. And of course, selling all those dollars would certainly weaken the dollar, which would not help the Chinese economy one bit.

On the flip side, allowing the renminbi to weaken sharply presents an entirely different problem, the fact that the Chinese are terrified that they would lose control of the capital flow situation if it weakened too far. Remember in 2015, when the Chinese created a mini-devaluation of just 1.5%, it triggered a massive outflow as USDCNY approached 7.00. The Chinese people have no interest in holding their assets in a sharply depreciating currency, and so were quick to sell as much as they could. The resultant capital flows cost China $1 trillion in FX reserves to prevent further weakness in the currency. Given we are only 2% below that level in the dollar right now, it seems to me the Chinese will either need to accept massive outflows and a destabilizing weakening in the renminbi, or more likely, look for another response.

The final thought was to further restrict soybean imports from the US. While the Chinese can certainly stop that trade instantly, the problems here are twofold. First, they need to find replacement supplies, as they need the soybeans regardless of where they are sourced, and second, given the Swine virus that has decimated the pig herds in China, they need to find more sources of protein for their people, not fewer. So, no pork and less soybeans is not a winning combination for Xi. The point is, while US consumers will likely feel the pressure from increased tariff rates via higher prices, the Chinese don’t have many easy responses.

And let’s talk about US prices for a moment. Shouldn’t the Fed be ecstatic to see something driving prices higher? After all, they have been castigating themselves for ‘too low’ inflation for the past seven years. They should be cheering on the President at this stage! But seriously, yesterday’s PPI data was released softer than expected (2.2%, 2.4% core) and as much as both Fed speakers and analysts try to convince us that recently declining measured inflation is transitory, the market continues to price rate cuts into the futures curve. This morning brings the CPI data (exp 2.1%, 2.1% core) but based on data we have seen consistently from around the world, aside from the oil price rally, there is scant evidence that inflation is rising. The only true exceptions are Norway, where the oil driven economy is benefitting greatly from higher oil prices, and the disasters of Argentina and Turkey, both of which have tipped into classic demand-pull inflation, where too much money is chasing too few goods.

Turning to market performance, last night saw the Shanghai Composite rally 3.1% after the imposition of tariffs, which is an odd response until you understand that the government aggressively bought stocks to prevent a further decline. The rest of Asia was mixed with the Nikkei lower by a bit and the KOSPI higher by a bit. European shares are modestly higher this morning, on average about 0.5%, in what appears to be a ‘bad news is good’ scenario. After all, French IP fell more than expected (-0.9%) and Italian IP fell more than expected (-1.4%). Yes, German Trade data was solid, but there is still scant evidence that the Eurozone is pulling out of its recent malaise so weaker data encourages traders to believe further policy ease is coming.

In the FX market, there has been relatively little movement in any currency. The euro continues to trade either side of 1.12, the pound either side of 1.30 and the yen either side of 110.00. It is very difficult to get excited about the FX market given there is every indication that the big central banks are well ensconced in their current policy mix with no changes on the horizon. That means that both the Fed and the ECB are on hold (although we will be finding out about those TLTRO’s soon) while both the BOJ and PBOC continue to ease policy. In the end, it turns out the increased tariffs were not that much of a shock to the system, although if the US imposes tariffs on the rest of Chinese imports, I expect that would be a different story.

This morning we hear from Brainerd, Bostic and Williams, although at this point, patience in policy remains the story. The inflation data mentioned above is the only data we get (although Canadian employment data is released for those of you with exposures there), and while US equity futures are tilted slightly lower at this time, it feels like the market is going to remain in the doldrums through the weekend. That is, of course, unless there is a shocking outturn from the CPI data. Or a trade deal, but that seems pretty remote right now.

Good luck and good weekend
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