Trump puts world markets on edge – but relief for stocks may be at hand

Stock markets around the world took a large blow last week. The biggest factor at play was President Trump’s instigation of new tariffs on China over concerns of intellectual property theft – the second action on trade in as many weeks after the administration enacted steel and aluminium tariffs for the Chinese and other nations.

However the other reason concerned geopolitics, and perhaps the future of the world as we know it today. The sitting National Security Adviser at the White House H.R. McMaster was axed, and Trump replaced him with a former ambassador and mouthpiece for the military-industrial complex John Bolton. This appointment has palpably raised the prospect of an armed conflict between the United States and one of its adversaries, most likely to be Iran. Indeed, John Bolton called for Israel or the US to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities as recently as 2015, in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Bolton was also a firm supporter of the war in Iraq, which many consider to be an illegal war driven purely for the benefits of American corporate interests, including oil companies.

Trump has seen more moderate and reflective members of his administration leave in recent months. Hope Hicks, who was known as having a calming influence on the President, left her post as White House Communications Director, shortly followed by Gary Cohn – Chief Economic Adviser. A former Goldman Sachs employee, Cohn had opposed Trump’s metal tariffs, and was one of the key players behind getting the popular tax reform bill passed last year. Soon after Rex Tillerson got the chop as Secretary of State, another moderate who favoured keeping the Iran nuclear deal and seeking a diplomatic resolution to tensions on the Korean peninsula. Trump replaced him with Mike Pompeo, the former CIA Director who holds a noted aggression towards Iran.

Jeremy Bash, a former Chief of Staff at both the CIA and Defense Department said on MSNBC that Trump was “assembling a war cabinet”. Given the direction of his team, this seems hard to argue with. With less mediating influences at his side, Trump will be less likely to hear opposing arguments from more dovish staff. Instead his views on Iran may be blindly accepted in an echo chamber where voices of dissent are minimal. Ironically, Trump ran on a platform based partly on withdrawing the US from expensive overseas wars, but he has constantly reaffirmed his commitment to increase military spending since he took office.

A war in Korea has been made less likely thanks to Kim Jong Un approaching South Korean leader Moon Jae In, but a question mark still hangs over the Middle East, not only because of the possibility Trump will scrap the Iranian nuclear deal, but also the prospect of a conflict erupting over Syria, where Russian forces are still propping up the Assad regime. Just last month, The Guardian reported that scores of Russian mercenaries had been killed by US airstrikes in the country as the US attacked pro-regime forces. If events like this continue to occur, the prospect of a confrontation between the US and Russia rises. Russia already resents the fact that NATO military buildup on its borders in Eastern Europe, and it goes without saying what a war between the two could mean for the global economy.

None of this is good news for the world as a whole, except those in the military-industrial complex who hold stock in military companies!

Today though things look brighter. US stock futures are up, on reports the US and China are trying to resolve the trade dispute behind the scenes. European markets are also driving higher led by the DAX (Germany 30). We have our fingers crossed that the worlds foremost superpowers can be pragmatic, adult and reasonable – though with Trump at the helm of one of them, this is not guaranteed.

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The world economy is stronger but tensions are rising – a look at the OECD’s latest report

The OECD says the global economy will see its strongest growth in seven years in 2018 thanks to a rebound in trade and investment, though it also warned today that a trade war could threaten the recovery.

In its March 2018 interim economic outlook which used the subtitle ‘Getting stronger, but tensions are rising’, the organisation updated its outlook for G20 economies and raised its global growth forecast for 2018 and 2019 to 3.9 percent – the highest since 2011, from previous forecasts of 3.6 percent for both years.

The raised forecast is partly due to expectations that U.S. tax cuts will boost the American economy.

Here were the key positive takeaways from the report:

– Growth is improving or steady in most G20 economies

– Trade and private investment are bouncing back

– New fiscal stimulus in the United States and Germany will further boost short-term growth

– Inflation (a concern for Central Banks) is set to rise slowly

– Consumer confidence, particularly in BRIICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa) has risen sharply

The key negatives and risks were as follows:

– Income gains, particularly for median and low income households have barely improved over the last decade

– Public and private debt in G20 nations is very high, with China leading the way at over 200 percent of GDP

– The pace of structural reform is slow, in emerging market countries especially

– An escalation of trade tensions would be damaging for growth and jobs

Regardless, the overall picture is healthier. Acting OECD Chief Economist Alvaro Pereira said: “We think that the stronger economy is here to stay for the next couple years,” He added, “We are getting back to more normal circumstances than what we’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

This is good news for investors the world over, as a more robust global economy will create a better environment in which companies can grow and expand more easily, boosting corporate results and shareholder returns.

China vows to retaliate to U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminium as prospect of trade war looms

The Chinese government in Beijing has confirmed it will retaliate if the Trump administration goes ahead with a plan to place tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from China and other nations including Brazil.

In the latest progression in tensions between the 2 countries, Wang Hejun, a senior official at China’s Commerce Ministry said: “If the final decision from the U.S. hurts China’s interests, we will definitely take necessary measures to protect our rights.”

He was of course referring to proposals drawn up by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who last week recommended Trump should impose tariffs on foreign suppliers of metals due to ‘national security’ issues, as well as unfair trade practices including steel ‘dumping’. Dumping is the process of keeping steel prices artificially low, which has the effect of pricing other producers out of the market. Republicans in Washington argue that this practice negatively impacts the ability of U.S. steel companies to compete, thus hitting communities in America which have depended strongly on manufacturing jobs, and have been decimated by the closure of factories, particularly across the rustbelt.

Trump’s more protectionist rhetoric on trade and his skepticism of globalisation resonated strongly with voters in these communities in 2016, yet this is an age-old problem that was a hot topic even under Obama. Even notoriously anti-Trump news outlet CNN formerly sympathized with his perspective. In a report in 2016, CNN said that the American steel industry was “being hurt by an unprecedented surge in unfairly traded imports, with record amounts of foreign-produced steel flooding into the United States. Cheap, subsidized foreign imports are taking steel jobs away.”

Whether these tariffs are good for the American worker is yet to be seen, because this is only the second salvo to be fired in what could become a full blown trade war, but it’s fair to say the ramifications of this action from the Trump administration will be significant, given that China produces around half the world’s steel. Trump has until mid-April to decide on whether to go ahead with the proposals, which would mark the second major action on trade after he imposed tariffs on solar panels and washing machines from the Asian superpower in January.

The move won’t be a surprise given the rhetoric Trump used during the campaign and in his first year in office. He’s set his sights on renegotiating everything from how much NATO members spend on their military budgets to coming down hard on Canada’s lumber industry, whereby the Department of Commerce set total import tariffs at above 20 per cent for most Canadian softwood lumber producers last November.

China’s Ministry of Commerce soon went on the defensive, and said the conclusions from a US departmental national security review of the steel and aluminium industries were incorrect, because China has proven its products did not threaten U.S. national security. Wang Hejun said: “The spectrum of national security is very broad. Without a clear definition, it could easily be abused. If every country followed the U.S. on this, it would have serious ramifications on the international trade order.”

The American oil industry is booming and that may undermine OPEC

America may well become the world’s leading energy producer by next year, according to the International Energy Agency.

The latest IEA report said that in the 3 months to November last year, U.S. crude output was seen increasing by 846,000 barrels a day.

The data revealed how fast rising production in non-OPEC countries (led by the U.S.) is likely to grow by more than demand this year. The relentless rise of American crude supply could undermine OPEC efforts to re-balance the global oil market, and may see the U.S. overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia (two of the world’s largest producers) in oil production by the end of 2019.

Head of the oil industry and markets division at the IEA Neil Atkinson said: “We are seeing United States production rising very, very dramatically before our very eyes and that’s likely to continue in 2018.”

One reason this trend looks set to continue may be due to the Trump administration’s willingness to open up more areas in the U.S. to oil production. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it may conduct 16 auctions to open new oil and gas wells along the Atlantic and Pacific continental shelves. It will also sell 31 new leases near Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. energy exports now compete with Middle East oil for buyers in Asia, and daily trading volumes of U.S. oil futures contracts have doubled in the past 10 years, according to the CME Group. This indicates just how much America has grown as a major player in world energy markets.

Conversely, the latest OPEC report showed production for the members of the group was little changed in January as they continued to limit their output for a second year in order to balance an oversupplied market. However, key members like Iraq raised their output in the first month of 2018.

Crude prices have jumped nearly 50 per cent since mid 2017 reaching highs of over $70 a barrel but have since lost steam, now sitting at around $62 p/b.

Patrick Jones

UBS say Worries on China’s Debt are Overblown as it Sets Up Exclusive Investment Fund

Swiss banking giant UBS is introducing a new private fund for institutional and high net-worth individuals with an interest in investing in China’s booming equity markets.

Having obtained a new permit granting them increased access to stock markets in the country, UBS is introducing the first mainland China stock fund owned by a company outside China. The UBS China Equity Private Fund Series 1 has completed it’s initial offering, and will help its members to invest in China’s thriving stock markets, which for many years were available only to Chinese citizens.

China’s markets are dominated by state-owned businesses, but private companies are starting to make headway too, particularly in sectors like healthcare. Not only this, but the central government has made reforms in order to let foreign investors trade on more-restricted stock exchanges like the Shenzhen and Shanghai exchanges (which contain so called ‘A-Shares’ – the stocks that this new fund from UBS is mostly interested in).

Historically, these shares were only available for purchase by mainland citizens, due to China’s skepticism about foreign investment, but the country is continuing to open up its markets to overseas wealth.

UBS has a long history in China. UBS AG was China’s first qualified foreign institutional investor, as approved by the China Securities Regulatory Commission in 2003 – a massive deal for a foreign bank!

The fund’s manager, Zizhen Wang, said “From a long-term perspective, UBS sees sustainable growth in the Chinese economy and opportunities in the A-share market,” he added, “Blue-chip stocks are fairly valued and leading companies across numerous sectors are enhancing their international competitiveness.”

In another vote of confidence for the economy, UBS also said they were less worried about China’s debt burden than other banks. Speaking to Bloomberg, Jason Bedford, a Hong Kong-based UBS analyst, said a financial systemic credit event in China is “very unlikely”. He added that a lot of the items on China’s balance sheet were less risky than many thought, even the asset-backed securities.

He said “A significant portion of off-balance sheet exposures are composed of benign, no-risk or low-risk items.” He added, “The failure to distinguish the risk between these items has often led to an exaggerated risk perception among many market watchers.”

It’s no secret that the Chinese economy is hooked on debt, especially in its state-owned enterprises. Lending in the country has grown rapidly over recent years, as household and corporate wealth has ballooned. China’s citizens and businesses have been looking for higher returns in a system where bank interest rates have been held down.

The government is aware of this, and looks to be taking steps to deleverage the economy by cracking down on certain problem-areas, including the booming online lending market.

Just this week, CNBC reported that a top-level Chinese government body issued an urgent notice on Tuesday to provincial (local) governments, urging them to suspend approval for the setting up of new internet micro-lenders. They also apparently told local regulators to restrict granting new approvals for micro-loan firms to conduct lending across regions.

These kinds of businesses have grown massively in popularity over recent years, by giving credit to people who couldn’t get loans at state banks, which tend to favour bigger corporate clients instead.

Xi Jinping has made clear that he backs the idea of deleveraging so as to ‘cleanse risk’ from China’s financial system, and the governments actions so far have been applauded by analysts. But though reforms are clearly in motion, whether this will be enough to offset China’s already hugely leveraged economy is less certain.

As we saw in the case of the financial crisis in 2008 where top Wall Street firms were leveraged (indebted) to an obscene degree, a high amount of total debt can signal systemic financial fragility. When everyone owes everyone else money, a negative shock to the economy, or even just a spontaneous panic can upset the system, by causing a lot of borrowers to default at the same time. When financial firms are highly leveraged, it also makes it easier to have a bank run or a similar liquidity crisis. During the financial crisis, this was certainly the case. China must avoid this kind of situation at all costs.

Though UBS are bullish, other data shows the future looks bleak for the world’s second largest economy. Bloomberg economists Fielding Chen and Tom Orlik estimate that China’s total debt will reach 327% of GDP by 2022, a staggering level which could make it harder for the country to avoid a financial crisis, especially considering actual economic expansion is set to slow to 5.8% in 2022 from 6.7% in 2016, compounding matters further, and as growth continues to slow while debt continues to rise, the risk of a collapse in asset prices looms. This would spell big trouble for an economy that the world depends on for so much.

Patrick Jones

Former ECB head calls time on debt & highlights risks to investors

Trichet
Mario Draghi’s predecessor is concerned

Eurozone growth is up across the board, earnings season in the US was impressive, the UK’s FTSE100 has had a stellar year despite Brexit worries, and even Greece’s economic woes look far less terrifying.

Everything looks better, doesn’t it? Aren’t we through the worst of the post-crisis economic downturn, so now we have less to worry about? Jean-Claude Trichet, the former President of the ECB (pictured), doesn’t entirely think so.

Speaking to CNBC, Trichet said, “Despite the fact that real growth is active, I wouldn’t say buoyant, but very satisfactory, we have some indicators on global leverage that are not reassuring.” Referring to massive debt levels across the world, he added, “We are now at a level (of debt) which is higher than immediately before the financial crisis, so there’s no time for complacency.”

The International Monetary Fund has repeatedly warned about global debt levels. The IMF’s deputy managing director David Lipton said, “We are seeing some greater leverage in the corporate world, in some countries for households, so that rising indebtedness and that increase in market risk really is something policymakers should keep an eye on.” Last year, global debt hit a record high of $152 trillion, while the IMF warned it added major risks to recovery.

Even China, which has relied heavily on debt to boost their economy in the past, is slowing down borrowing in order to reduce risk. Yesterday they pulled a $4.6 billion subway project in Inner Mongolia.

Additionally, Jean-Claude Trichet pointed out that a very long period of ultra low interest rates, coupled with quantitative easing programmes carried out by central banks, has allowed for the prices of financial assets like stocks to rise rapidly. This presents the risk of major bubbles in financial markets, which some would argue are already present.

Indeed, surveys indicate that a large number of investors think stock markets are overvalued, though they are still choosing to take on high levels of risk. Bank of America Merill Lynch’s new fund-manager survey (which includes over 200 people who manage $610 billion) shows a record number of survey respondents are taking higher-than-normal risk, at a time when US stocks are close to their highest valuations in history. Overconfidence here could be dangerous. The data indicates investors are feeling emboldened at a time when they should be more cautious.

Regardless, US markets are likely to rise further, pushing up stock prices. UBS thinks tax cuts in the US could boost S&P500 earnings per share by at least 6.5% in 2018, with telecom and financials predicted to be the biggest winning sectors. They noted that the S&P500 rallied by over 40% after the 1986 corporate tax cut under Ronald Reagan, so this seems likely.

Patrick Jones