An Irish poet once wrote, ‘Things fall apart’. While William Butler Yeats’s words were illuminating the terror and awe of the second coming of Christ, it would be easy to see how investors might consider them rather apropos for the way in which May managed to thwart and consume 2019’s positive market momentum. Just as the S&P 500 reached its record high at the end of April, May saw the index fall by -6.35%. Developed Market (DM) equities were also victims to the blood-dimmed tide: as measured by the MSCI EAFE index their value tumbled by -4.66%. While such losses will trouble investors, particularly as most indicators point towards a daunting, uphill climb for markets for the rest of 2019 and beyond, it would be wise to remember that year-to-date the S&P 500 and MSCI EAFE not only remain well into positive territory, they are both exceeding the expectations set during the dismal days of December 2018. While American and DM equities have been left merely bruised, May brought Emerging Market (EM) equities to their knees. Their stellar 2019 returns were overrun and eliminated, falling by -7.22% as measured by the MSCI EM index, practically down to where they were at the end of 2018.
The main protagonist who pitilessly turned markets upside down in May was the United States (US)-China trade war. Just over two months after US President Donald Trump indefinitely postponed the tariff raise from 10% to 25% on over $200bn of Chinese goods, on May 10, 2019 he suddenly enacted them with no more than a few days’ notice. The following Monday, May 13th the Chinese retaliated with their own tariff increases on over $60bn of US goods. The freshly realized trade war had begun and its impact was swift and immense: the Dow fell 617 points and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq both dropped a shocking 2.4% in just one day of trading. Those hoping that Trump’s hard nose tactics would yield an immediate result and that the tariffs would be short-lived may well have been thinking naively: we are a lot closer to new increases than to a cooling of trade hostilities. More than $300bn of fresh Chinese goods – mostly consumer goods, including automotive vehicles, some of which rather ironically bearing the name ‘General Motors’– are only a signature away from being enacted by Trump. More tariffs would likely incur a further retaliation from China and suck both countries deeper and deeper into a trade war from which it will not be easy to escape. According to the International Monetary Fund the trade war will cost the US around $455bn in the short term, a round number that is more than the total size of the South African economy, which is the entire continent of Africa’s largest. While it will hit China hard, too, the one party-state has the greater ability to manoeuvre and pull levers to stimulate its economy through monetary and fiscal easing and by lowering taxes. Furthermore, unemployment is not an issue in China; but despite its resilience, China’s businesses and consumers will feel plenty of trade war-induced pain. Despite this being a bilateral issue, all international markets will feel the trade war’s strain and stress.
Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is currently stuck between its lofty capitalistic aspirations and ownership links to the Chinese one-party Communist state. On May 15, 2019 Trump banned Huawei products from the US through a national security order, claiming that Beijing is using the company to conduct international espionage. Both China and Huawei vehemently deny the accusations; it has also been suggested that this is a power play by the US to make the Chinese more pliable at the trade negotiating table. This accusation was first levied against Washington back in December 2018 when Huawei Chief Financial Advisor Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada at the request of the US on 13 criminal charges including conspiracy to violate US Iranian sanctions, fraud and obstruction; she remains in Canada under partial house arrest where she is battling extradition. According to the US, Wanzhou’s arrest and its banning of Huawei products are both completely unrelated to the trade war. In the meantime, Huawei is suffering as computer chip behemoth Arm has set them adrift and Google is on the verge of withholding its signature Android mobile and tablet operating system. At the same time, Trump is pressuring US allies to also ban both Huawei products and technology – which presents difficulty for countries like Britain and Germany who are using the tech company to build their new 5G networks. If Huawei were tempted to think that their plight could not get any worse and that it was only up from here, they would be crestfallen by the news that Britain has dropped the Huawei Mate 20 X from its forthcoming 5G launch and that – as long as Trump has his Chinese vexation aimed at Huawei – more disappointments are likely to follow.
After a brief and thoroughly restful April slumber, a reinvigorated Brexit is poised to join ranks with the US-China trade war and become a serious thorn in markets’ side. To the delight of investors, late March saw a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit temporarily averted; regrettably the new October 31, 2019 deadline is rapidly approaching. April and May hoisted a range of existential and practical questions upon Britons, their government and their Members of Parliament (MP): what kind of Brexit the United Kingdom (UK) wants, how it will get there and whether it still even wants to leave the European Union (EU) at all. While these introspections have resulted in plenty of discord in the main opposition party, Labour, the ruling Conservatives have manifested their unrest by forcing their party leader and the Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May to resign. Mrs. May is wildly unpopular among Brexiters for failing to arrive at the hard Brexit the more dogmatic among them desired; she is disliked by Remainers for her dogged pursuit of Brexit despite what they believe is copious evidence that remaining in the EU is the far more sensible option. As a result, very few people will be shedding a tear for the PM, and yet markets may be quaking in their boots. While equities have been tortured by the instability and lack of clear direction fostered by Mrs. May’s inability to successfully manage Brexit, it was none other than the PM who saved them from the ruinous ‘No-Deal’ Brexit by postponing the deadline to October 31. Furthermore, any deal under Mrs. May would have probably been an equity-friendly soft-Brexit – now that she is leaving her post it is a near certainty that her successor will come with the most robust of Eurosceptic credentials and could have minimal problem steering Britain and markets off a ‘No-Deal’ cliff to achieve Brexit by October 31.
As Mrs. May has abdicated, the Conservative Party is currently in the midst of a leadership contest and the result will bring the UK its next PM. Boris Johnson, MP, is the leading candidate and he has already declared he has no problem with a ‘No Deal’ Brexit if a suitable agreement cannot be made before October 31, 2019. While Johnson is bold, brash and prone to the occasional gaff – a bit like a subdued, British equivalent of President Trump – his words will likely prove easier to say than to effect: there simply is not a majority for a No-Deal Brexit in Parliament and Johnson will inherent from Mrs. May a minority government from which it is very difficult to do anything significant, particularly when so many members of his own ruling Conservative Party are dead set against a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. While leaving the EU without a deal remains the default legal position regardless of Parliamentary math, if it appears that the UK is headed in that direction it is a near certainty that a no-confidence vote in the government would be triggered, which would result of a new general election. In this very plausible scenario, unless things drastically improve for Johnson’s Conservative Party, particularly after the way in which it got hammered at the recent European Parliamentary elections, they would likely lose the keys to 10 Downing Street to Labour. As such, Johnson will likely have no interest in a fresh general election and will therefore be keen to avoid a situation that would see his government dissolved through a no-confidence vote. Therefore, it seems sensible that even with a Hard-Brexit PM all options remain on the table, including a second ‘People’s Vote’ referendum that could break Parliament’s Brexit deadlock and give the a final decision about what kind of Brexit is desired – or if it is still desired at all – back to Britons. While markets may optimistically decide to take this as a news teetering on ‘positive’, even with rose-tinted glasses it is clear that the raging political uncertainty that would accompany avoiding a ‘No Deal’ Brexit in this convoluted, dragged-out fashion would punish the British economy and equities within and beyond the UK.
Already a diabolical month for markets, there was more bad news for investors on its final day – on May 31st Trump announced plans for a 5% tariff on all imported Mexican goods to begin on June 10, 2019 as a way to pressure Mexico into taking action to help manage the illegal migrant crisis. As discussed in last month’s Market Commentary, the Mexican economy is already in bad shape and tariffs would have been a crushing blow, particularly as they were scheduled to increase incrementally: up to 10% in July and possibly as high as 25% by October. Thankfully Trump announced on Saturday June 8th that he would cancel the tariff increase as Mexico agreed a host of new measures: to clamp down on migrants crossing its northern US border, to deploy its national guard to the southern Mexican border to thwart fresh migrants moving north and to work to abate human smuggling. The result of this drama – an 8 day period that saw American equities, consumers, businesses, investors and the Mexican economy all squirm in uncertainty and fear– may be painted as a political victory for Trump as Mexico obliged to his wishes without any tariff ever having been introduced. But the question must be asked, particularly in light of the on-going issue of the US-China trade war: is it wise to use tariffs in the way in which the President is quickly becoming a fan?
According to Trump, ‘Tariffs are a “beautiful thing when you’re the piggy bank,”– but what happens to this bold assertion when it is scrutinized? Investors and equities should all delight in the fact that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) recognized the genuine damage that quickly escalating tariffs would do to his country’s already fragile and floundering economy and acquiesced to the US President; the problem from an American perspective vis-à-vis Make America Great Again is that tariffs would have done arguably more damage to the US economy (and those who rely on it), its vastly superior strength, notwithstanding. Indeed, Mexican tariffs would be a blow for US businesses with supply-chains running through Mexico and the resulting products – from car parts to avocados – would bear what is effectively a sales tax that would be passed on to American consumers. As such it is no surprise that the Republican Party was unable to rally behind the President, with both Senators Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz speaking out in opposition to the Mexican tariffs. Moreover, to view Trump’s thoughtless words on his love of tariffs through a historical prism, one need only look back to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act to see the effects of over-reliance on tariffs that saw them implemented on over 20,000 imported goods, which subsequently incurred punitive retaliatory measures, which resulted in American exports and imports being reduced by more than half during the Great Depression. There is near consensus that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act – effected in 1930 – greatly exacerbated the Great Depression; it is a bit of history that confirms that excessive tariffs have the ability to cause economic shrinkage, spiral out of control and cause a deep and painful recession. The President may wish to consider this if he is to stand a chance at re-election in 2020.
Like Trump, the Federal Reserve would also like to see a recession avoided; indeed, we believe its Chairman Jerome Powell is all too aware of the likelihood of one barrelling towards the US. Not only has he spontaneously climbed down from a more-or-less set policy of increasing interest rates throughout 2019, he has even given signs that he is open to lowering them. During a speech on June 4th in Chicago, Powell said that he would be ‘closely monitoring’ trade negotiations and ‘other matters’ – that one might suggest could be tariffs – for the US economic outlook and to act appropriately to sustain its expansion. Naturally, lowering interest rates would not only be a trick to fighting back recession, it would also provide relief to US businesses and consumers from tariffs.
In the Middle East, US-Iranian tensions have flared up to the point where a bona fide war has become a genuine possibility. Since leaving the Iran Nuclear Deal, Trump’s administration has followed a policy of maximum pressure – apparently this has so far failed as Iran is not succumbing to sabre rattling or threats and they have even defiantly said they may soon cease complying with the Nuclear Deal. Moreover, according the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iran is using mines to attack oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. In short, through Trump’s treatment of Iran, not only are we closer to a war, we are also closer to Iran choosing to resume its nuclear weapons program. Despite Trump saying that his only desire is to get Iran back to the negotiating table to prevent it from developing these weapons, in May the President deployed military assets to the region, which may suggest a somewhat more hawkish stance.
Ever since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro managed to get his ambitious and necessary pension reform through the Lower House Constitution, Justice Committee and subsequently on the doorstep of Brazil’s Congress, there has been little movement. However, as this was always going to be a long process, Bolsonaro’s administration remains positive. However, according to credit rating agency Fitch, while the pension overhaul is absolutely necessary, there is no scenario in which it will single-handedly stabilize Brazil’s public debt, much less kick its economy into the high gear the reforms supposedly promised. Consequently, it would seem that the market’s original enthusiasm for President Bolsonaro may have been unjustified.
In India, despite failing to realize his wide-ranging reform program in his first term and the disaster that was his currency redenomination, Narendra Modi won a decisive election victory to see him remain the PM for another 5 years. Indian equities enjoyed this tremendously, surging to record highs on the back of Modi’s new potent political mandate. Despite India’s Sensex’s recent success, there are concerns that the index is overvalued, with a forward PE of 18 compared to its EM Asia peers who average 12. Moreover, the Indian economy is facing high unemployment and its lowest GDP growth in 5 years.
A bright spot that stands in relief to the ruin of May is Vietnam, who is rather enjoying the US-China trade war. The Southeast Asian country is capitalizing on supply chain disruptions as more and more manufacturers move from China to within its borders to escape Trump’s tariff. In no small part due to this, its economy is expected to grow to just under 7% in 2019 and is poised to exceed 7% in 2020. While Vietnam’s economic success bodes well for other Asian EM economies, it is set to reap the most benefits from the US-China trade war given its proximity to China, well regulated and high quality labor conditions and affordable wages.
No matter the direction from which you approach it, May was an appalling month for equities. Beyond its poor performance, a range of intimidating headwinds appear to be here for the long haul to stymie or at least frustrate positive market momentum. The only bit of lipstick we can put on this is really two fold: DM equities remain well above expectations so far in 2019 and they are in positive territory year-to-date. Secondly, despite EM equities losing all their 2019 gains in a single month, there are still fine investment opportunities to be had – one just might have to look a bit harder to find them.
We had repeated to ourselves ad nauseum that cooler heads would prevail in the US-China trade war. We were wrong and we are now immersed in a full-fledged trade war which – despite arguably some virtuous motivations – will damage both the US and Chinese economies and will cause pain for many others. While it is at best wishful thinking, we can only hope that there will be a somewhat swift resolution that will see all tariffs gradually rolled back while both countries work toward a new, mutually beneficial trade deal to mitigate the ways in which American businesses, consumers and the economy have to suffer. What is more, even without a trade war, both the US and China have been in the midst of worrying economic slow downs, so one wonders how much deeper the plunge will be now? Our lone hope is that Trump’s survival instincts will kick in and he will remember that he has an election to win in the next calendar year, which may be a tall order if he has single-handedly driven the US into a trade-war-induced recession.
We are delighted that Trump called off his Mexico tariffs at the last moment, something that equities at least momentarily enjoyed; however, we believe untold damage has been done to the American economy and its trading relations as a consequence of the 8 days during which the 5% tariff threat appeared to be an imminent and palpable reality. From an American business perspective, only the most optimistic persons will think that the trade hostilities are done and dusted and that we have emerged on the other side into a new stable trading relationship between the US and Mexico. In many ways, American businesses who rely on Mexico for their supply chains or materials are faced with a similar predicament as their UK counterparts with Brexit. The threat of future tariffs popping up again creates a most uncertain environment for businesses with links to Mexico, and such conditions impede the ability to make medium- to long-term business plans and also make it difficult to invest in new infrastructure and make new hirings; it also makes these businesses far less attractive investment opportunities.
We also wonder what damage the threat of tariffs has done to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) replacement between United States, Mexico and Canada vis-à-vis the recently signed (but have not yet ratified) United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)? One may ask whether this new free trade agreement is worth the paper on which it is written if tariffs can be thrown into the equation whenever Trump is feeling trigger-happy. It does not just hurt the US’s reputation with its northern and southern neighbors, we believe it sends the wrong message to the Chinese about the potential value of a new US trade deal. Furthermore, the US brazenly devaluing the meaningfulness of its trade deals does not exactly encourage the Communist state to make any of the dramatic concessions that Trump is justifiably demanding.
Our expectations for Brexit are not overwhelmingly positive. We see a ‘No-Deal’ leaning PM replacing Mrs. May, and we see this person (probably Mr. Johnson) being thwarted and frustrated by his lack of Parliamentary majority, the Remainers in his own party, the opposition parties and maybe even the House Speak John Bercow (who has been transparent about his desire to block Brexit). Britain is at a Brexit stalemate which means that markets should be braced for more uncertainty and any residual positive momentum may gradually evaporate and grind the UK economy to at best a halt, at worst, recession. If there is any hope, it is that Britain remains an economic powerhouse and is filled with some of the biggest, best and most innovative businesses in the world who may be able to keep the country afloat and heading in the right direction while Britons and their MPs duke it out over a Brexit resolution.
Regarding EM markets, while they will largely be victimized by the fall out of the US-China trade war – which is most worrying – it is not all bad. The Fed’s decision to freeze interest rates is very good news for EM equities; Powell deciding to lower rates would be an early Christmas present. Furthermore, while China is clearly in a worse place while embroiled in a trade war, its President Xi Jinping has the ability to manipulate his monetary policy in a way that can soften the damage through continuing a strategy of monetary and fiscal easing. China also recently delivered over $298bn of tax cuts and company fees savings, which will only help further. Of course, lowering taxes will not help Chinese businesses retain the manufacturing they will lose to other Asian EM economies to avoid Trump’s tariffs. Vietnam is already benefitting tremendously from this and will likely continue to do so; and Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Philippines will also likely enjoy benefiting from China’s manufacturing losses. We believe all these markets offer interesting opportunities for investors, but of course rising US interest rates and an even stronger US dollar could bear negative consequences. Lastly, while India’s market may be overpriced, it is likely that their equities may offer better value than US or other DM equities stifled by Brexit or stagnant EU growth.
In conclusion, May has not been a positive month for investors – a trade war is waging without an end in sight between the world’s two largest economies, Brexit is a disaster and is impeding both the UK and EU economies, Trump has a self-admitted weakness for recession-inducing tariffs and there are a range of other geopolitical issues that have destabilised markets. And yet, the many causes for concern notwithstanding, we expect the world economy to end 2019 with growth; what is more, we believe EM equities will presents investors with copious ‘diamonds in the rough’ opportunities which will be there for those willing and capable of unearthing them.
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