At what point do “talks” become “war”?
And how long can traders ignore
The signs that a truce
Are, at best, abstruse?
It seems bulls don’t care any more
So, markets continue to shine
But something’s a bit out of line
If problems have past
Then why the forecast
By bonds of a further decline
I can’t help being struck this morning by the simultaneous rebound in equity markets alongside the strong rally in bond markets. They seem to be telling us conflicting stories or are perhaps simply focusing on different things.
After Monday’s equity market rout set nerves on edge, and not just among the investor set, but also in the White House, it was no surprise to hear a bit more conciliatory language from the President regarding the prospects of completing the trade negotiations successfully. That seemed to be enough to cool the bears’ collective ardor and brought
bargain hunters dip buyers back into the market. (Are there any bargains left at these valuations?) This sequence of events led to a solid equity performance in Asia despite the fact that Chinese data released last night was, in a word, awful. Retail Sales there fell to 7.2%, the lowest in 16 years and well below forecasts of 8.6% growth. IP fell to 5.4%, significantly below the 6.5% forecast, let alone last month’s 8.5% outturn. And Fixed Asset Investment fell to 6.1%, another solid miss, with the result being that April’s economic performance in the Middle Kingdom was generally lousy. We have already seen a number of reductions in GDP forecasts for Q2 with new expectations centering on 6.2%.
But the market reaction was not as might have been expected as the Shanghai composite rose a solid 1.9%. It seems that China is moving into the ‘bad news is good’ scenario, where weak data drives expectations of further monetary stimulus thus supporting stock prices. The other interesting story has been the change in tone in the official Chinese media for domestic Chinese consumption, where they have become more stridently nationalist and are actively discussing a trade “war”, rather than trade “talks”. It seems the Chinese are girding for a more prolonged fight on the trade front and are marshaling all the resources they can. Of course, at the end of the day, they remain vulnerable to significant pain if the second set of tariffs proposed by the US is enacted.
One consequence of this process has been a weakening Chinese yuan, which has fallen 2.7% since its close on Friday May 3rd, and is now at its weakest point since mid-December. At 6.9150 it is also less than 2% from the 7.00 level that has been repeatedly touted by analysts as a no-go zone for the PBOC. This is due to concerns that the Chinese people would be far more active in their efforts to protect their capital by moving it offshore. This is also the reason there are such tight capital flow restrictions in China. It doesn’t help the trade talks that the yuan has been falling as that has been a favorite talking point of President Trump, China’s manipulation of their currency.
This process has also renewed pundit talk of the Chinese selling all their Treasury holdings, some $1.1 trillion, as retaliation to US tariffs. The last idea makes no sense whatsoever, as I have mentioned in the past, if only because the question of what they will do with $1.1 trillion in cash has yet to be answered. They will still need to own something and replacing Treasuries with other USD assets doesn’t achieve anything. Selling dollars to buy other currencies will simply weaken the dollar, which is the opposite of the idea they are trying to manipulate their currency to their advantage, so also makes no sense. And finally, given the huge bid for Treasuries, with yields on the 10-year below 2.40%, it seems there is plenty of demand elsewhere.
Speaking of the Treasury bid, it seems bond investors are looking ahead for weaker overall growth, hence the declining yields. But how does that square with equity investors bidding stocks back up on expectations that a trade solution will help boost the economy. This is a conundrum that will only be resolved when there is more clarity on the trade outcome.
(Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: what if President Trump is purposely sabotaging the talks for now, seeking a sharp enough equity market decline to force the Fed to ease policy further. At that point, he can turn around and agree a deal which would result in a monster rally, something for which we can be sure he would take credit. I’m not saying it’s true, just not out of the question!)
At any rate, nothing in the past several sessions has changed the view that the trade situation is going to continue to be one of the key drivers for market activity across all markets for the foreseeable future.
After that prolonged diatribe, let’s look at the other overnight data and developments. German GDP rose 0.4%, as expected, in Q1. This was a significant uptick from the second half of last year but appears to be the beneficiary of some one-off issues, with slower growth still forecast for the rest of the year. Given expectations were built in, the fact that the euro has softened a bit further, down 0.1% and back below 1.12, ought not be too surprising. Meanwhile, the pound is little changed on the day, but has drifted down to 1.2900 quietly over the past two sessions. Despite solid employment data yesterday, it seems that traders remain unconvinced that a viable solution will be found for Brexit. This morning the word is that PM May is going to bring her thrice-defeated Brexit deal to Parliament yet again in June. One can only imagine how well that will go.
Elsewhere in the G10 we have the what looks like a risk-off session. The dollar is modestly stronger against pretty much all of that bloc except for the yen (+0.2%) and the Swiss franc (+0.1%), the classic haven assets. So, bonds (Bund yields are -0.10%, their lowest since 2016) and currencies are shunning risk, while equity traders continue to lap it up. As I said, there is a conundrum.
This morning we finally get some US data led by Retail Sales (exp 0.2%, 0.7% ex autos) as well as Empire Manufacturing (8.5), IP (0.0%) and Capacity Utilization (78.7%) all at 8:30. Business Inventories (0.0%) are released at 10:00 and we also hear from two more Fed speakers, Governor Quarles and Richmond Fed President Barkin. However, it seems unlikely that, given the consistency of message we have heard from every Fed speaker since their last meeting, with Williams and George yesterday reinforcing the idea that there is no urgency for the Fed to change policy in the near term and politics is irrelevant to the decision process, that we will hear anything new from these two.
In the end, it feels like yesterday’s equity rebound was more dead-cat than a start of something new. Risks still abound and slowing economic growth remains the number one issue. As long as US data continues to outperform, the case for dollar weakness remains missing. For now, the path of least resistance is for a mildly firmer buck.