Trader's View - Tariffs get hiked, trade-relations stay tense

The latest round of trade talks didn’t have the desired outcome.

Source: Bloomberg

The tariffs get hiked

The latest round of trade talks didn’t have the desired outcome. But nevertheless, the always forward-looking equity market closed last week on something of a high-note. It was a choppy day’s trade in Asia as the news filtered through that an agreement between the US and China in Washington wouldn’t be reached. Ultimately though, and just like the last time tariffs were hiked, financial markets handled the news with aplomb. The simplest explanation for why there wasn’t a huge reaction financial markets is roughly this: it “was buy the news and sell the fact” with markets having already discounted a trade-war escalation.

Markets (probably) saw it coming

It’s an unhelpful cliché, that one. However, market-moves, ex-post or not, are often chalked up to such a dynamic. It’s one of those helpful mental models to make sense of the madness of financial markets day-to-day. Regardless, it’s ostensibly what financial markets have done in this instance; giving solace to the bulls and bolstering risk-appetite. Fundamentally, the global equity map was a rich-shade of green after the end of Friday’s trade. The S&P 500, for one, closed 0.37% higher, CSI 300 lifted a remarkable 3.63%, and SPI Futures are indicating a 29 point jump this morning.

The future feels more uncertain

The question moves today to: where to from here? From a pure fundamentalists point of view, those folks probably just wait to see how new trade-barriers show up in the hard-data. That one is probably going to be a slow-burn. Recall, after the last round of tariffs were implemented, it took the better part of a quarter for them to show in the data, and vaguely reflect in market fundamentals. For the short-term sentiment watchers, an answer to that overriding question will be more immediate, however perhaps more gradual in its unfolding. Afterall, this is a headline driven market, and those headlines are still being produced.

Trade will remain “headline-driven”

Hence, on the headline front, what was received over the weekend – after the market had closed – was probably not all that favourable for risk-sentiment. While Friday’s trade was buoyed by news that trade-talks were continuing and were “constructive”; trade at the very early stages of this week is being stifled by the harsh rhetoric from the Trump administration, towards the Chinese, over the weekend. Upping his binary “winner-and-losers” language, news has filtered through the wires that the US has delivered China an ultimatum: make-a-deal, or tariffs get applied to all Chinese goods going into the US in a month’s time.

Higher trade-barriers to stifle global growth

The reliability of this story is somewhat questionable. Regardless, if tariffs are applied to all goods going into the US from China, and retaliatory tariffs are proportionately applied to all goods going into China from the US, then the global economy will almost certainly suffer. Speculation now in financial markets will probably centre in a big-way on trying to quantify the impact of this dynamic. This will take some time to actually materialize. But you can bet the quants and other data crunchers of the world will be adjusting their models to try and predict their impact now.

US-China conflict possibly the “new-normal”

For traders not-so resource rich, the matter becomes less about predicting the numbers, and more about getting a rational grasp on whether the trade-war will continue to escalate. Given the current circumstances, a bitter spoonful of pessimism may well be the conclusion. That’s because the trade-war, as has been repeated ad nauseum in the punditry, is not an economic issue, but a strategic one. To borrow from the classics, it’s a case of Thucydides-trap. China does not wish to compromise its inexorable rise; while the US is trying to force China to rise within the restrictive confines of the world-order it, itself created.

The consequences of this new order

The intractability of such an issue means that, at the very least intellectually, a true resolution to the trade-war in the short-term in unlikely. Tariffs may come and go, but financial markets will have to deal with a world in the future where its two biggest economies are “at each other’s throats”. This new reality will probably be internalized by markets, which will move-on over time, and trade according to the market-fundamentals, determined by economic and corporate strength. However, as the economic cycle continues towards its end, the interest will be in how weaker global-trade steepens its descent, and compromises the markets’ fundamentals.


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