July’s lackluster market performance stands in contrast to the volatile political and economic forces we have experienced the past month. The question we have is what – in the grand scheme of things – will July’s numbers mean for markets short, medium and long term performance? In July the MSCI EAFE was down -1.26%; the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap dropped by -0.43%; and the MSCI Emerging Markets index fell -1.14%. Given the extent of market uncertainty, one might say that such small dips in these indices are no big thing. Indeed, that may be a worthwhile view in light of the increased volatility caused by trade disputes, China’s less robust output, Brexit (possibly) drawing to a conclusion on October 31, 2019 and Germany (and maybe the European Union) slipping into recessions with the United States (US) also possibly joining suit with the news that 10 year bonds fell below 2 year bonds for the first time in more than a decade. And yet we see positives including the US’s low unemployment rate and the confidence inspired by the World Bank’s global growth forecasts of 2.6% in 2019 and 2.8% in 2020, figures that suggest we are no where near a global recession.
While we were happy to take the market victory a month ago when US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a trade truce and recommitted themselves to working out a mutually beneficial trade deal at June’s G20 summit, we always believed that it was hype over substance as it did not repeal either sides’ crippling tariffs. Furthermore, judging by Trump’s erratic disposition and self-admitted fondness for tariffs it was evident that a mere truce would do nothing to stop the administration from further hostilities the moment the negotiations failed to go to plan. July largely enjoyed relative quiet on this front, but on August 1 the temporary calm gave way to a fresh wave of market rocking angst. After two days of trade talks with little progress and China failing to fulfill its promise of buying more US farm products, Trump announced that the 10% tariff on $300bn of Chinese goods was back on that table and scheduled to be enacted September 1, 2019. On Tuesday August 13 a change of pace was announced and markets reacted jubilantly to the news that Trump would be delaying the new tariffs on items like cell phones, video games and apparel, until December 15, 2019 in an effort to minimize the effect they would have on US consumers getting ready for the upcoming holiday season. Market joy notwithstanding, there was actually really no cause for genuine market excitement as not only will existing tariffs persist (as was the case a month ago) but also as things currently stand some items will see a new 10% tariff slapped on them on September 1. Moreover, far from China responding favorably to Trump’s partial climb down on new tariffs, the Communist giant has responded bellicosely by stopping all plans to buy more US agricultural products, with fresh tariff threats of its own and intentionally devaluing its currency. Despite the hostility, both sides are due to resume negotiations at the end of August.
On July 31, 2019 Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell announced a 25 basis point interest rate reduction. As a result US equities fell sharply with investors disappointed that rates were not slashed more aggressively, or at the very least were not accompanied by promises of future rate cuts. According to Powell the cut was the result of the Fed moving to a more accommodative stance due to mid-cycle adjustments. ‘Trade tensions seem to be having a significant effect on the economy,’ he said, adding that, ‘global manufacturing slow down is a bigger factor than expected last year.’ Given Trump’s apparent disregard for the Fed’s independence and his vociferous lobbying of Powell to aggressively lower interest rates which has included threats of firing him, some may many wonder if the rate reduction was effectively Powell succumbing to the President’s pressure. Even if Powell is not explicitly obeying the person who appointed him to his post, one may wonder if Trump is using tariff threats to dictate the Fed; if so, will he use them again?
James O’Leary, CFA, our Chief Investment Officer and Senior Portfolio Manager at Henry James International Management, is braced for on-going trade negotiations between the US and China through the 2020 elections. He believes there will be a range of smaller agreements along the way which may include Chinese concessions with respecting intellectual property and purchasing US agricultural goods (e.g. soy beans) but that the resolution that markets are craving will prove illusive until the 2020 election is decided. If a Democrat wins, one imagines a somewhat less hawkish stance against the Chinese, which President Xi would lap up; if Trump is re-elected O’Leary believes that Xi will be coerced to bow down to Trump’s demands, the Chinese President’s de facto life-long premiership, notwithstanding. While O’Leary is not particularly a fan of the market volatility that the trade dispute has inflicted upon markets, saying, ‘tariffs and the threat of tariffs have slowed down and damaged the global economy and will continue to impede growth,’ he believes that some battles are necessary in light of China’s brazen disregard of respecting patents and its unbalanced trading relationship with the US. Moreover, according to O’Leary, at the base of this trade disagreement is far more than mere trade: it is the battle for 5G technological supremacy. He believes that China is aggressively pursuing a plan of developing and disseminating its 5G tech throughout the world – through US blacklisted company Huawei – while the US government is putting its full support in Ericsson and Nokia not only to ensure that US-made chips are at the forefront of the 5G revolution but also to make sure that the West continues its domination in this tech sector. As a result of this tech battle, O’Leary believes that the tech sector is poised to grow positively as chips and software will be the major drivers in the 5G revolution. Consequently, says O’Leary, Henry James International Management will expect to be over-weighted in tech.
O’Leary agrees with Trump’s pointed assessment that China overtly manipulates its currency; yet, in his view, it is not necessarily a bad thing for the world. On the contrary, it may provide an element of economic stimulus for the world as it will make Chinese goods that much cheaper for consumers. This of course will keep Chinese goods relevant in the US market despite the negative intentions of Trump’s tariffs. And yet, devaluing the Yuan will likely impede China’s own economy because it has decreased the value of their own stock market – relative to the US’s – by 10%. While many Chinese companies who import to the US and other countries may be partially shielded from this negative side effect, the value of non-exporting companies will have gone down considerably in virtually one fell swoop. O’Leary also suggests that China devaluing its currency so brazenly has damaged the Yuan’s long term dollar independence and its ability to act as a major stable currency internationally.
O’Leary did not believe that the US economy needed a rate cut and that Powell lowered it as a precautionary measure and maybe even as a nervous attempt to undo his December 2018 rate increase. In light of trade disagreement escalations, O’Leary believes that we will see another rate cut by the end of 2019 to help stimulate the global and US economies. Of course, a consequence of lowering interest rates is that that EM economies – including China’s – will benefit because of their dollar denominated debt. As result, says O’Leary, Henry James International Management will hope to increase its EM exposure; however in light of China’s volatility there are no immediate plans increase exposure there.
In so far as O’Leary is happy to combat the economic headwinds presented by trade disputes and even Brexit, which appears set for a no deal outcome on October 31, 2019, he will cautiously welcome the Fed cutting interest rates; however, he views interest rates being so low for such a long time as a rather dangerous game. ‘Cutting interest rates will stimulate the economy – but you can only play that card while there are still rates to be cut,’ he said. O’Leary added, ‘The Fed needs to the tools to control inflation when we have a recession, which many believe is on the horizon, but with rates so low there will be little wriggle room to make further cuts to mitigate the effects.’
We see July’s overall figures showing small dips in the face of raging uncertainty the result of a range of market forces battling themselves into a stalemate. In the medium term future we believe we can expect minor progress in the US-China trade dispute – with possibly some Trump-induced bumps in the road – until the next US general election; and we will look forward to the benefits of lower interest rates, despite our fear that unnecessary reductions may leave the Fed powerless should a recession hit. Ultimately, we remain hopeful that lower interest rates and a settlement to trade disagreements combined with the extra attention the Trump should give the economy in 2020 will result in continued global growth and that our concerns abouteconomic headwinds will begin to fade.
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