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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JPMorgan Co-President warns of 40% correction in stocks – is he too pessimistic, or bearish?

JPMorgan Chase Co-President Daniel Pinto thinks the stock market is set for a 40 percent fall in the next 2-3 years, a move down which would end up wiping out the last 2 year’s of gains in the market rally stateside.

Speaking to Bloomberg Television, Pinto said: “We know there will be a correction at some point”. He added: “We are at an interesting time. We are 2-3 years probably until the end of the cycle and markets are going to be nervous. Nervous to anything that relates to inflation, nervous to anything that relates to growth. And I think tariffs – if they go a lot beyond what has been announced – it is something that will concern markets about future growth.”

These are big ‘ifs’ though. Trump wont necessarily escalate trade action at a more rapid rate. Indeed, as you can read in the final paragraph of this article, the administration has left the door open for other countries to adjust their own trade practices in return for tariffs being modified or removed completely. If other nations including China stop flooding the market with so much cheap steel, helping the U.S. to address its colossal trade deficit, Trump may be willing to soften more, and this would be another major boon for the markets, which are already starting to benefit from the Republican tax reform package passed in December last year.

So much depends on whether trade relations deterioriate further, and whether other leaders including China’s Xi Jinping are willing to concede to a more aggressive U.S. trade policy, or fight back even harder. Given how much both countries depend on eachother economically, its more likely that both leaders will be pragmatic over the issue, but if they aren’t, then Pinto’s forecast could come true.

For now though, even despite worries concerning inflation, the speed of Federal Reserve interest rate rises, the withdrawal of monetary easing and the prospect of another major correction in the markets like the one we saw in late January / early February, stock prices keep rising and indices keep moving upwards. The chart below shows how quickly the benchmark S&P500 index is recovering after that sharp fall earlier this year, even with all the noise in the press about chaos in the White House and warning signs in the economy.

SP500

Robust financial results for American companies through the first quarter of the year show us that the underlying fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong, which is why investors keep buying back in. By February 8th this year, 322 S&P500 companies had reported quarterly results during the latest earnings season, and 78 percent of them beat Wall Street estimates. According to Thomson Reuters data, that was the best rate of above-estimate earnings since Q3 2009!

Besides this, the latest labour market data released today showed the U.S. economy added 313,000 new jobs in February, the biggest gain since mid-2016 and a reflection of the strongest labor market in two decades.

Then there’s the North Korea breakthrough – whereby Trump is set to meet Kim Jong Un in May, the first ever meeting between a sitting U.S. President and sitting DPRK leader in history. If relations between the 2 were normalised, this would be a huge relief to Asian stock markets and those in the U.S. boosting investor sentiment even more.

Overall, I’d argue Pinto’s case looks a little bit too bearish considering the data we are working with right now, but anything could happen in the next year or 2.

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

Brexit Woes Pile on Top of Poor UK Economic Data

THE DATA

UK retail sales fell by 0.8% in September according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics.

As expected, inflation in the country is having a direct impact on the retail sector, as the ONS also reported that prices in shops have risen by 3.3% over the last year – a jump not seen since early 2012.

Consumer spending has been a key driver of growth recently, so this pull back will be seen as a concern, and possibly a factor the Bank of England will keep in mind as it debates over whether to raise interest rates.

All of this bad news is putting downward pressure on the Pound once again. Sterling reached $1.3226 against the Dollar yesterday but plunged this morning.

There is likely to be more volatility in the British currency as Brexit negotiations are in difficulty according to reports. The odds of Britain walking away without a deal from the talks have grown recently, with fingers pointing at both ineffectual Conservative leader Theresa May and the rigidity and stubbornness of the EU’s negotiating team.

THE POLITICS

In a move that may help to smooth negotiations, the Conservative Party has officially announced it will be assuring the right of EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit officially happens (and at this rate there’s plenty of doubt over whether it will happen at all). However the question coming from opposition leaders is: why did it take so long for them to do this? We don’t have an answer to the question, but it is yet another example of sloppiness on the part of the Tory party,  whose stance on the negotiations in Brussels and Strasbourg and the future of the EU-UK relationship appears just as confused as their opposition in Parliament.

Speaking of which, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn employed a machiavellean tactic today by turning up in Brussels earlier than Theresa May and addressing a gathering of European Socialists, putting on a display of political theatre in order to undermine her position. After being introduced as ‘the next prime minister of the UK’, Corbyn called for the current PM to stand aside and let him take up negotiations, setting out his vision of a Brexit which maintains free access to the single market.

Of course, as anyone who has followed the referendum narrative knows, you can’t stay inside the single market and have Brexit. The two positions are entirely contradictory, for remaining in the customs union means conceeding to the laws that the European Union dictates, while Brexit means leaving all EU institutions, including the single market, European Court of Justice and so on. As a man who was once a noted Eurosceptic amongst the Labour back-benchers, it frankly seems naive for Mr Corbyn to expect such a favourable deal which lets the UK pull out of the Union yet retain tariff-free trading with the EU’s member states. Frankly, his words ring just as hollow as Theresa May’s call for a ‘close’ relationship with the EU. Neither of the leaders seem to grasp the fact that the Union is built on protectionism and not ‘fairness’ as they would so hope.

Indeed, the view from the continent arguably looks as if the EU Commission is trying to keep Britain subdued, as can be seen by the fact they are staunchly against letting the UK discuss the future of its trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world for the time being – effectively sticking a roadblock right in the middle of negotiations. The EU is totally transparent in its interests. The bloc’s chief goal is its own survival and the promotion of ever closer union. Trying to have a sensible, logical and rational negotiation with such an organisation was always going to be difficult.

But it isn’t just the EU Commission that Theresa May’s Brexit team must be wary of. British members of Parliament are trying to derail the process. 18 Labour MEPs and one from the Liberal Democrats supported a European Parliament resolution critical of the British government’s approach to the negotiations, which said Brexit talks should not move on because insufficient progress had been made on divorce issues. This position is not a surprise, given that many Labour party members have difficulty accepting the outcome of the vote on June 24th last year, and never wanted a referendum to be held at all. Though they may pretend that the reason they attempt to block progress is due to wanting the government to be more accountable, in this writers opinion they are simply hoping to stall negotiations and hopefully force a rerun of the referendum, despite their protestations to the contrary. The EU is no stranger to reruns of this nature. Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 but the decision was ultimately overturned.

Now that the fifth round of monthly Brexit talks between the UK and the EU has taken place, a decision is due to be taken by the EU later in October on whether or not enough progress has been made on “separation issues” to be able to start talks about the future relationship between the bloc and the UK post-Brexit. Refreshingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there were “encouraging” signs that the Brexit talks could move on to the subject of the future trade relationship as early as December, according to The Guardian today. For the time being however, investors will be hoping for more clarity and a faster negotiation progress from the Commission and the British Government, but it looks like they will be waiting quite a while longer.

Losses for the Pound (seen here against the Euro through 2017) have helped the FTSE100 to rally throughout the year. With this being said, stock market performance is not 100% correlated with economic prosperity. The reason that the FTSE, as well as the Bats Low 50 index have outperformed despite the woeful Brexit situation is simply because firms within these indices make much of their profits overseas.

A cheaper Pound allows consumers in other countries to buy their goods for less, improving company profits. In strict contrast, the Bats Brexit High 50 index has underperformed. The Bats Brexit indices were designed to act as barometers for assessing how Brexit is impacting UK companies. They do this by analysing the difference in performance between companies that generate a large portion of revenues in the UK and those that have less revenue exposure to the UK. The High 50 is made up of companies that depend more upon domestic revenues for success, while the Low 50 is those that primarily generate earnings overseas. You can clearly see the discrepancy between the performances of the High 50 (in red), FTSE100 (in yellow) and Low 50 (in blue) indices this year here.

Fed sounds hawkish on interest rates / Trump tax reforms in focus

September 27th

Yesterday Federal Reserve head Janet Yellen reaffirmed the central bank’s commitment to keep pushing interest rates higher, saying that it should not be too gradual in its approach – words that will be seen as refreshingly hawkish to many investors. Confirmation of another rate hike in December has pushed bank stock prices higher this morning once again, even across Europe.

Today a major focus for investors will be what President Trump announces about tax reform in a speech later today in the US. A plan to simplify the American tax code and cut tax rates for individuals (especially those in the middle class) and companies, was a key message in Trump’s campaign. It is expected that the tax rate for corporations will be reduced by 15%, from 35% to 20%.

Though Trump has repeatedly stated that rates for businesses would be reduced to 15%, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (pictured shaking Trump’s hand) indicated in a New York Times interview recently that this may not be a realistic option. Still, any cuts they can get through would potentially be a great leap forward for the US economy and benefit investors simultaneously.

By reducing overall taxation, US companies may become more competitive financially. With lower rates across the board, many firms who were tempted to move abroad to save capital (cheaper labour costs, lower taxes) may choose to stay in the US too, creating more jobs instead of laying off their US-based workforce. A more favourable environment for businesses and individuals is likely to spur economic growth (which will boost stock markets too). The question now is whether the team behind tax reform can convince congress of the merits of the plan and get it passed.

Merkel win overshadowed

September 22

Angela Merkel has been re-elected as German Chancellor following elections in the country yesterday.

Though it was a convincing win for the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union in Bavaria), the victory was overshadowed by the rise of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party.

Right-wing AfD has gained favour amidst rising anti-migrant sentiment, following Angela Merkel’s open door immigration policies throughout 2015/16.

With the Chancellor having stated in the summer of 2015 that “there is no legal limit to refugee numbers”, hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants, many of whom were not genuine refugees, flooded into Germany, prompting domestic and international backlash.

The AfD has capitalised off of the social unrest and anger this mass-movement caused and gained 12.6% of the vote yesterday, winning its first seats in the Federal Parliament and becoming the Bundestag’s third largest party.

Stock markets in Europe faltered when markets opened this morning, but are starting to head higher. The major growth of a far-right party in Germany has significant implications for the EU and as such, investors are concerned about the election results. This concern prompted a reasonable sell-off earlier. The Euro is also lower against the Pound and Dollar due to these anxieties.