Taking a closer look at how the tariff cards may play out and which markets may suffer the most should things get nasty
The past three months have been dominated more by political than economic news.
The US administration’s trade policies remain a critical focus for investors given the role that tariffs play in Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ trade strategy, which is focused on reducing bilateral trade deficits and revitalising the US manufacturing base.
These efforts are unlikely to wane any time soon. The pledge of increasing jobs by reworking international trade norms and agreements played a central part in Trump’s election, and unlike immigration, tax policy and judicial nominees, the administration has few concrete accomplishments to show in this area.
How the administration’s efforts will play out remains an open question. To date, the threat of tariffs – and, in a few cases, their implementation – has not yielded significant concessions from major trade partners.
However, they have created uncertainty in sectors of the US economy that could face rising input costs or could see foreign sales declining as a result of retaliatory measures on US goods. Yet the threat of tariffs has increased, with President Trump more recently highlighting the potential for tariffs against a wide range of Chinese imports as well as foreign-made vehicles.
Despite the risk of further protectionist measures and retaliation by major trade partners, it has become increasingly clear that the administration views tariffs largely as a negotiating tactic and has shown a willingness to scale back when trade partners offer concessions.
The administration is also facing pressure from the Republican party leadership in response to concerns raised in the business community. This constraint over the direction of trade policy has the potential to become more significant, given an emerging Congressional effort to consider legislative means that would reduce the executive branch’s trade authority.
Still, the administration’s efforts to reduce the bilateral goods deficit with China, open Chinese markets to US firms and make Chinese policies on technology transfer and intellectual property rights less injurious to US interests enjoy bipartisan support and are unlikely to wane.
Negotiations with China are likely to remain challenging and have the potential to unsettle markets further, particularly if the Trump administration grows impatient with any lack of progress ahead of the November mid-term elections.
Due to China’s pivotal role in the global supply chain, a fall in Chinese exports due to the Sino-US trade conflict could inflict collateral damage on other economies and thus affect their macroeconomic risk. The potential damage can be estimated by stripping out the foreign value-added content in China’s gross exports and reassigning it back to its source countries to assess their ultimate export exposure to the US.
While the estimated damage to China would be rather limited, a drop in Chinese exports would be quite damaging to most of Asia’s export-oriented economies, with six of the top 10 most-exposed countries being Asian (see chart).
From an asset allocation perspective, ceteris paribus, China seems to be the Asian market least affected by the Sino-US trade frictions. A market study also finds that among Asian countries, the industries that could be hit hard include textiles, leather and footwear in Vietnam, computers and electronics in Taiwan and Malaysia and chemicals and petroleum products from Singapore.
If the trade friction worsens, broader risks for the world markets may include China using extreme policies such as devaluing the renminbi, dumping US Treasuries and hitting US investments in China by invisible trade retaliation measures.
Final export exposure to the US compared to direct exports to the US in 2016
Sources: UN Comtrade, Eurostat, OECD-WTO TiVA database, IMF, national statistics, CEIC, Nomura, BNPP AM (Asia)
Turning to data news, incoming information has increasingly called into question the prevailing narrative of robust and synchronised global growth that seemingly underpinned market prices at the start of the year.
The eurozone had been identified as the stand-out performer going into 2018, with business cycle indicators near stratospheric levels. However, those indicators have slipped back and official data shows the pace of growth slowing in the first quarter of the year.
Data surprise indices, which show whether out-turns have typically under- or outperformed expectations, illustrate how times have changed. Eurozone data was consistently above expectations at the start of the year, whereas it has consistently surprised to the downside in recent months.
And the slowdown is not unique to the eurozone. The pace of growth eased in the UK in the first quarter and activity actually contracted in Japan, bringing to an end an encouraging run of consecutive quarters of economic expansion.
It is likely that the activity data has been distorted somewhat by erratic factors such as bad weather that have temporarily depressed activity.
Indeed, the Bank of England appears to be putting a lot of weight on this explanation for the slowdown in UK GDP. From our perspective, it seems unlikely that the recent weakness can be entirely ascribed to such factors. The weight of evidence points at the very least to a shift in the balance of risks around the growth outlook.
However, it is important to emphasise that the data in most places is still satisfactory, with the near-term risk of recessions still remote.
The one obvious exception has been the US, where the growth outlook remains upbeat. It is therefore no surprise that the US dollar has appreciated as the narrative has shifted from synchronised to desynchronised growth, which brings us to news on interest rates.
The US Federal Reserve is on course to raise interest rates four times this year and continues to signal that further rate rises will be required in future years. However, comments by members of the Federal Open Market Committee have muddied the waters somewhat, revealing that some are open both to the idea of taking a pause from tightening when rates reach a neutral setting and to the strategy of allowing inflation to modestly overshoot the target.
Elsewhere, the picture is more straightforward. The ECB and the Bank of Japan are still engaged in quantitative easing (QE), although the former aims to wind down its QE programme by the end of the year. Stepping back, it remains the case that while global inflationary pressures are subdued, the stance of monetary policy should remain loose.
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