China: Red Flag Rising

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

Despite a quick reopening, a crack in the Chinese currency suggests things are about to get worse for the world’s second-largest economy.

Written May 24, 2020

The Chinese yuan finished last week near its lowest level in more than a decade as investors began to bet with their feet, heading for the exits over concern that the country is compounding its economic problems with geopolitical moves that are already generating widespread condemnation and even greater uncertainty.

The post-pandemic economic landscape presents a test for the regime that has long prided itself in delivering on an unspoken bargain where one-party rule is tolerated in exchange for consistent economic growth.

However, a sure tell that the government’s grip is slipping was its failure to set an economic growth target for the upcoming year during last week’s National People’s Congress, the annual planning meeting of the Chinese Communist Party. It might seem like an insignificant detail, but for the first time since it began providing GDP estimates in 1990 the central body declined to be bound by a projection that it may not be able to meet. It is a big deal, and the obvious conclusion is that the economy on the mainland is worse than it outwardly appears.

China’s recalcitrance in dealing with COVID-19 has also turned global public opinion against it. As a result, doing business with the Chinese in the future is going to come under much more scrutiny than in the past.

Despite the allure of 1.4 billion potential consumers, it now won’t be so easy to turn a blind eye to the tilted playing field China has erected to their advantage, as much of the world has done since China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

The U.S. Senate took the first step last week by passing a bill by a 100-0 margin requiring Chinese firms to adhere to American accounting standards or risk being delisted from our exchanges, also a big deal. Other measures will follow.

The pandemic exposed many countries’ over-reliance on Chinese manufacturing and is forcing most to reconsider basing their supply chains elsewhere. Japan even earmarked part of its economic stimulus fund specifically to help its manufacturers shift production out of China.

The bottom line is, the rules of international trade are being rewritten and China is not going to like the changes.

Further complicating matters, China is lashing out at the west’s insistence on an investigation into the origins and handling of the virus. Within the space of a few weeks they’ve made moves to block certain Australian exports, threatened to cut off the supply of critical pharmaceutical ingredients to the U.S., and imposed their own national security laws on Hong Kong. So much for the idea of “one country, two systems” that was the founding principle agreed to by both parties when the British turned Hong Kong over to China in 1997 and that has allowed the former colony to thrive as an international financial center.

Not content to stop there, the Chinese navy is scheduled to begin live-fire military exercises later this month as part of an amphibious assault training operation on an island controlled by Taiwan. As the Wall St. Journal asked in a May 21 op-ed titled “China Moves on Hong Kong”, is Taiwan next?

At the risk of stating the obvious, political isolation from global trading partners can only be seen as a negative for the economy.

Plan A for Chinese authorities to counteract these economic headwinds is with traditional fiscal and monetary stimulus, along with a heavy dose of infrastructure spending. But the effectiveness of that approach is questionable as the country is already swimming in overcapacity, and debt. It’s the demand side of the equation that is lacking.

Plan B would be a devaluation of the currency, which the market is beginning to sniff out. In theory, this would spur demand by making Chinese-produced goods more competitively priced. In reality, it would propel the dollar higher, unleashing a deflationary wave on a world already under enormous pressure from falling prices.

The Fed and other central banks have done an impressive job of rescuing the credit and equity markets from the depths of the pandemic panic in March, but a Chinese devaluation would slam the lid on any hopes of reflating the global economy.

Our core portfolio positions remain long of the US dollar, front-end treasuries, and gold.

The Doctor is Calling

May 22, 2019

Copper is often referred to as the metal with a Ph.D. Because of its broad range of industrial uses, Dr. Copper has a well-deserved reputation as a predictive indicator for global macroeconomic trends.

Today’s break of nearly 1.5% is noteworthy but not exactly surprising as the trade war with China expands (see Huawei), impacting supply chains and hurting demand through higher costs. A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China revealed that a third of U.S. companies operating in China have either delayed or canceled investment decisions, and 41% of respondents were considering relocating (or had already relocated) manufacturing operations. See https://bit.ly/2YAac54 . This is huge.

What is surprising, however, is the ability of the equity markets to shrug off a major disruption in global economic activity and the potentially negative impact on corporate earnings. Volatility remains low, reflecting a belief that the Fed can control the outcome of the business cycle. Maybe they can, but as we approach the tenth anniversary of the current expansion that bet becomes less attractive.

If 2018 taught us anything, the credit and equity sectors can depart from weakening macro trends for only so long. Though copper began breaking down in June of last year the S&P essentially ignored it until October, but the adjustment was quick and ugly (see chart below.) A similar divergent scenario appears to be unfolding, this time made worse by intensifying trade-related pressures and leaving stocks increasingly vulnerable. The Doctor’s prognosis for the markets is not good.

Rates Headed South for the Summer

May 19, 2019

The U.S. rate market is putting “paid” to the latest narrative on inflation as it continues to discount even deeper rate cuts despite new projections that trade tariffs will push consumer prices higher and spark inflationary pressures. Like at any point in the last several years, inflation always seems to be looming around the next corner. Yet it’s not and the Fed can’t figure out why. While the Fed watches and waits, unsure of their next move, the futures market is busy pricing in the possibility of three rate cuts by the end of next year (see chart below.) For those paying attention to price action rather than talking points, the message couldn’t be clearer: the threat of an intensifying global economic slowdown is a much bigger problem than any inflationary uptick.

The short term rate complex is probably the least speculative of any financial market. It’s the quiet man of markets, often dull and boring and largely overshadowed by the latest IPO or equities in general. But its message should never be ignored. Forward rate expectations are breaking down hard, pricing an aggressive reversal in Fed policy. Something is happening macro-economically, and not in a good way. The risk is that trade uncertainties have disrupted supply chains and capital investment more than we thought. And rather than being a temporary phenomenon, tariff regimes could become the new normal, with longer-term impact.

As I noted in “The Dollar and Deflation” and “Fed Resists Market Push for Rate Cuts” a sharp move up in the dollar is a strong and rising possibility as trade and political tensions consume major export-dependent regions abroad like China, Australia, UK, and Europe. The first line of defense for these countries is to offset the drop in activity by letting their currencies fall. All eyes are on the Chinese yuan in particular. A “source” on Friday claimed that China won’t let the currency weaken below 7.00 to the dollar. (See https://reut.rs/2YxkPp9 .) Believe that if you want to but central banks have a history of saying they won’t devalue their currencies, right up until the point that they do. I saw careers ruined in 1994 when Banxico (the Mexican central bank) devalued the peso just hours after insisting to the Street that they wouldn’t.

The rate market is sensing a dollar groundswell. Another leg up in the USD would be deflationary as well as destructive to dollar borrowers abroad. It’s hard to overstate the strength of this message. The dollar-inspired equity selloff of late 2018 might have been the warm-up act for what’s to come in 2019. The Fed and investors alike ignore this scenario at their peril because if this is how it plays out, inflation will be the least of their problems. Be long the dollar and bonds, preferably 2-3-year treasuries.

Forward rate expectations are collapsing. Dec 2020 Fed Funds (blue) trade at 1.80% vs spot May 2019 Fed Funds (pink) at 2.39%