Absent Deceit

Two presidents are set to meet
From nations that fiercely compete
The issue at hand
Is how to expand
The trade twixt them absent deceit

For markets, this issue is key
And so far, today, what we see
Is traders complacent
A deal is now nascent
So buyers have been on a spree

The upcoming meeting between President’s Trump and Xi, due to be held on Saturday, has drawn the most focus amid financial markets in the past twenty-four hours. Yesterday we heard Treasury Secretary Mnuchin express confidence a deal could be completed and that “we were about 90% of the way there…” prior to the abrupt end of discussions last month. If you recall, the US claimed China reneged on their willingness to enshrine the deal details into their canon of law, which the US demanded to insure the deal was followed. However, shortly thereafter, President Trump, in a Fox News interview, talked about raising tariffs if necessary and seemed quite unconcerned over the talks falling apart. In fact, he turned his ire on India and Vietnam for adding to trade troubles. While Asian markets all rallied as the vibes seemed to be improving, a short time ago China announced they would have a set of conditions to present to Mr Trump in order to reach a deal. These include an end to the ban on Huawei products and purchases as well as an immediate end to all tariffs.

Given the importance of reaching a deal for both sides, my take is these comments and terms are simply being used to establish the baseline for the negotiations between the two men, and that some middle ground will be reached. However, markets (wisely I think) took the Chinese demands as a sign that a deal is far less certain than optimists believe, and European equities, as well as US futures, have sold off since their release. I have maintained throughout this process that a deal was always going to be extremely difficult to achieve given the fundamental problem that the Chinese have yet to admit to IP theft or forced technology transfers while the US sees those as critical issues. In addition, the question of enshrinement of terms into local law describes one of the fundamental differences between the two nations. After all, the US is a nation based on its laws, while China is a nation entirely in thrall to one man. Quite frankly, I think the odds of completing a deal are 50:50 at best, and if the luncheon between the two men does not result in the resumption of talks, be prepared for a pretty significant risk-off event.

In the meantime, the global economic picture continues to fade as data releases point to slowing growth everywhere. Yesterday’s Durable Goods numbers were much worse than expected at -1.3%, although that was largely due to the reduction in aircraft orders on the back of the ongoing travails of Boeing’s 737 Max jet. But even absent transport, the 0.3% increase, while better than expected, is hardly the stuff of a strong expansion. In fact, economists have begun adjusting their GDP forecasts lower due to the absence of manufacturing production. Yesterday I highlighted the sharp decline in all of the regional Fed manufacturing surveys, so the Durables data should be no real surprise. But surprise or not, it bodes ill for GDP growth in Q2 and Q3.

Of course, the US is not alone in seeing weaker data. For example, this morning the Eurozone published its monthly Confidence indices with Business Confidence falling to 0.17, the lowest level in five years, while Economic Sentiment fell to 103.3 (different type of scale), its lowest level in three years and continuing the steep trend lower since a recent peak in the autumn of last year. Economists have been watching the ongoing deterioration in Eurozone data and have adjusted their forecasts for the ECB’s future policy initiatives as follows: 10bp rate cut in September and December as well as a 50% probability of restarting QE. The latter is more difficult as that requires the ECB to change their self-imposed rules regarding ownership of government debt and the appearance of the ECB financing Eurozone governments directly. Naturally, it is the Germans who are most concerned over this issue, with lawsuits ongoing over the last series of QE. However, I think its quaint that politicians try to believe that central banks haven’t been directly funding governments for the past ten years!

So, what has all this done for the FX markets? Frankly, not much. The dollar is little changed across the board this morning, with nary a currency having moved even 0.20% in either direction. The issue in FX is that the competing problems (trade, weakening growth, central bank policy adjustments) are pulling traders in different directions with no clarity as to longer term trends. Lately, a common theme emerging has been that the dollar’s bull run is over, with a number of large speculators (read hedge funds) starting to establish short dollar positions against numerous currencies. This is based on the idea that the Fed will be forced to begin easing policy and that they have far more room to do so than any other central bank. As such, the dollar’s interest rate advantage will quickly disappear, and the dollar will fall accordingly. While I agree that will be a short-term impact, I remain unconvinced that the longer-term trend is turning. After all, there is scant evidence that things are getting better elsewhere in the world. Remember, the ongoing twin deficits in the US are hardly unique. Governments continue to spend far more than they receive in tax revenues and that is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Rather, ultimately, we are going to see more and more discussion on MMT, with the idea that printing money is without risk. And in a world of deflating currencies and halting growth, the US will still be the place where capital is best treated, thus drawing investment and dollar demand.

This morning brings some more data as follows: Initial Claims (exp 220K) and the third look at Q1 GDP (3.1%). Later, we also see our 6th regional Fed manufacturing index, this time from KC and while there is no official consensus view, given the trend we have seen, one has to believe it will fall sharply from last month’s reading of 2.0. There are no Fed speakers on the docket, so FX markets ought to take their cues from the equity and bond markets, which as the morning progressed, are starting to point to a bit of risk aversion.

Good luck