The trade talks have taken a turn
Amidst markets growing concern
The story today
Is China won’t play
By rules which trade partners all yearn
The trade talks narrative is shifting, and markets are not taking kindly to the change. Prior assumptions had been that the talks were progressing well and that this week’s meetings in Washington were going to produce the final agreement. However, this morning the tone has changed dramatically. President Trump tweeted that the Chinese “broke the deal”, implying that items previously agreed by the two sides are no longer acceptable to China. To my reading, the key issue is the Chinese refusal to codify into law the changes being agreed regarding IP and forced technology transfer. It appears that the Chinese believe this too onerous and difficult to accomplish and instead will be giving guidance to local governments. (Perhaps somebody can explain to me how it is too onerous for a dictatorship to change its own laws.) Essentially, they want the US to trust that they will perform as expected. Simultaneously, it appears the Chinese have interpreted President Trump’s hectoring of the Fed to cut rates as an admission that the US economy is not strong, and that Trump needs to cut the deal. This has encouraged the Chinese to play hardball as they believe they have the upper hand now.
The upshot is that the odds of a successful conclusion of the talks have fallen sharply. At this point, my read is they are no more than 50:50, which is far lower than the virtual certainty the market had been pricing as recently as last Friday, and quite frankly far lower than the market is currently pricing. In fact, it is easy to make the case that at least half of the equity rebound since Christmas is due to the growing belief a trade deal would be agreed, so if that is no longer the case, a further repricing (read decline) is in the cards. As such, it should be no surprise that equities in Asia continue to retreat (Nikkei -0.95%, Shanghai -1.5%, Hang Seng 2.4%) and we are seeing weakness throughout Europe as well (DAX -0.9%, CAC -1.3%, FTSE -0.4%) given concerns that a failure in these talks will have a much wider impact spread across the investment community. Not surprisingly, US futures are pointing lower with both Dow and S&P futures -0.75% as I type.
Continuing with the risk-off theme, Treasury yields continue to decline, falling two basis points even after a very weak 10-year auction yesterday, while German bund yields have fallen another bp to -0.06%, their lowest level in two months. The flight to safety is beginning to gain some momentum here.
Finally, looking at the dollar, it should be no surprise it is having another good day. While it is little changed vs. the euro, it continues to trade near the lower end of its recent trading range. However, the pound has fallen a further 0.2% hindered not only by the modest dollar strength but by the realization that there will be no grand deal between the Tories and Labour regarding Brexit. Adding to the risk-off mood is the yen’s further appreciation, another 0.2%, taking it below 110 for the first time in three months.
In the EMG bloc, one cannot be surprised that CNY is weaker, pushing back toward 6.85 and touching its weakest level since January. On top of that, the offshore CNH is even weaker as speculation grows that a collapse in the trade talks will result in the Chinese allowing the renminbi to fall much more sharply. But it’s not just China under pressure here; we are seeing weakness in every area. For example, the Mexican peso has fallen 0.5%, Indian Rupee 0.3% and Korean won 0.85%. In other words, the carry trade is under pressure as the first investors search for a safe place to hide. Unless the talks get back on track, I expect that we will see further weakness in the EMG bloc especially.
On the data front, overnight we saw Chinese financing data which demonstrated that despite the PBOC’s efforts to add liquidity to the market, financing is not growing as rapidly as they would like. For example, New Yuan Loans increased a much less than expected CNY 1trillion (exp CNY 1.2 trillion), while Outstanding Loan Growth ebbed as well. The point is that like every other central bank, the PBOC is finding that their ability to control the economy is slipping.
This morning brings Initial Claims (exp 220K) along with the Trade Balance (-$50.2B) and PPI (2.3%, core 2.5%) all at 8:30. Also at that time, we hear from Chairman Powell, followed by speeches from Atlanta’s Rafael Bostic and Chicago’s Charles Evans later in the day. The thing is, it beggars belief that any of them are going to change their tune regarding the Fed’s patience as they watch the economy develop. At this point, the key question is, if the trade talks completely fall apart and new tariffs are imposed by both sides leading to a severe decline in the equity market, will the Fed start to contemplate cutting rates? At this point I am sure they would vehemently deny that is their thought process. But if recent history is any guide, the financialization of the US economy has forced the Fed to respond to any significant movement in the S&P. So I would answer, yes they will! But that is a story for another day. Unless there is positive news from the trade front today, look for the overnight trends to continue; weaker equities, stronger Treasuries and a stronger dollar.