Trade Tensions Flare: Where Do We Go from Here?

Central bank actions and new trade tensions have created more questions than answers.

    Edward D. Perks, CFA

    Edward D. Perks, CFAExecutive Vice President, Chief Investment Officer, Franklin Templeton Multi-Asset Solutions

    Gene Podkaminer, CFAHead of Multi-Asset Research Strategies,Franklin Templeton Multi-Asset Solutions

    Market volatility has been on the rise as US-China trade tensions continue to flare and recent central bank activity has created more questions than answers. As such, many investors have been on edge. Franklin Templeton Multi-Asset Solutions CIO Ed Perks, and Gene Podkaminer, Head of Multi-Asset Research Strategies, present the team’s latest thoughts on where the global economy is headed—and how investors should think about risk today. They say the persistent uncertainty calls for a cautious and nimble stance.

    The question of “where do we go from here?” appears to be on the lips of trade negotiators, central bankers and investors worldwide. The more that people scratch their heads and wonder what happens next, the more likely it is that two things happen: the yield on perceived safe-haven assets declines, and the price of insuring against uncertainty goes up.

    We believe that a return to long-run levels of market volatility since early 2018—rather than the muted levels seen for much of the past 10 years—indicated that we have entered a new risk regime. Taken together with the ongoing headwinds to global growth, we are not surprised to have seen sharp moves in financial assets and a rise in expected volatility.

    But what is the impact on the global economy; where is it headed? Many of our concerns have remained the same through the first half of 2019. Few have been resolved. Simmering concerns over the European auto sector and arguments over the level of tax to be paid by online businesses generating profits in foreign markets demonstrate that uncertainties look set to remain elevated.

    Most notably, trade relations between the United States and China have seen a marked breakdown in trust, despite a decent working relationship between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping personally. The truce they brokered just a few weeks ago, at the meeting of G20 leaders in Osaka, has been superseded by the announcement of new tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the United States.

    With no clear path to a resolution between the United States and China, exchange rates appear to be the next battleground with fears of competitive devaluations presenting a new aspect to the ongoing trade war. By allowing the renminbi to weaken beyond seven to the US dollar, the Chinese authorities appear to be less optimistic about reaching a near-term settlement over trade. Letting the currency move to better reflect deteriorating fundamentals is an example of how, at least for now, President Xi has more levers to pull than President Trump.

    Despite all of this tension, it is not inconceivable that deals could get done, and investors could relax once more. But the uncertainty persists for now.

    Global Trade Has Been Hit by Economic Policy Uncertainty Economic Policy Uncertainty vs. Global Trade Volume (July 2011–May 2019)

    Economic Policy Uncertainty vs. Global Trade Volume (July 2011–May 2019)

    Sources: Franklin Templeton Capital Markets Insights Group, Economic Policy Uncertainty, Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), Macrobond.

    The longer these concerns impact investor sentiment, the more new orders are deferred and investment plans curtailed (see chart below). Although many parts of the major developed economies are holding up well—with the service sector yet to feel the direct impact from slower global trade—the knock-on effects have become more likely.

    The deeper the trade slowdown and the longer it persists, the harder it is to see the service sector—the largest part of the developed economies—avoid some form of contagion. For now, employment levels have remained high and consumers have been able to sustain their spending. While we continue to see few imbalances, and the probability of recession remains moderate, the risks are rising. Our dominant theme remains “Slower Global Growth Is a Rising Concern.”

    Bond Yields Are Depressed for a Reason

    In recent months, markets have moved to discount lower interest rates from many of the main central banks across the globe. In July alone, rate cuts were delivered in key emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia and Turkey as well as in major economies such as Australia and the United States. The European Central Bank (ECB) signaled that it would likely follow suit as soon as September and consider re-starting its quantitative easing program. The Bank of Japan (BoJ) similarly indicated that it stood ready to act decisively if need be, especially if the Japanese yen was to appreciate making it harder to achieve the central bank’s inflation objective.

    Across emerging market economies, inflation pressures are muted, and many central banks have scope to cut interest rates to support activity. We observe that, unlike their developed-market peers, emerging market currencies tend to appreciate in such an environment. In the absence of a strongly appreciating US dollar more broadly, we have increased our conviction in the longer-term value seen in emerging market currencies, supported by the prospect of additional injections of liquidity from developed markets. To reflect this, we have upgraded our outlook for emerging market local currency bonds.

    Efforts to resuscitate inflation expectations (which we have written about in our Allocation Views over a number of months) remain the key driver of monetary policy. Market-based inflation expectations have fallen sharply (see chart below) and remain well below the targets set by policymakers. Government bond yields have moved toward cyclical lows in many markets and to all-time lows in others. This reflects inflation expectation as much, if not more so, than fears of slower economic growth. While we remain cautious about the valuation of developed market bonds, this is balanced in our neutral overall view by the continued impact of our major theme of “Subdued Inflation Across Economies.”

    Inflation Expectations SubduedMarket vs. Household Expectations for Inflation (July 2004–July 2019)

    Market vs. Household Expectations for Inflation (July 2004–July 2019)

    Sources: Franklin Templeton Capital Markets Insights Group, Bloomberg, FactSet, Macrobond, University of Michigan, St. Louis Fed. See www.franklintempletondatasources.com for additional data provider information. There is no assurance that any estimate, forecast or projection will be realized.

    Ongoing Policy Tensions

    The extent to which policymakers are able to meet market expectations is being tested. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) cut interest rates for the first time in a decade at the end of July. Although this move had been well flagged to markets and its size (25 basis points) was in line with consensus expectations, the accompanying message seemed less palatable. Comments by Fed Chair Jerome Powell that the central bank was offering a limited mid-course correction to policy, rather than suggesting that it might mark the start of a longer series of cuts, appeared to disappoint equity markets.

    The decline in bond yields that accompanied this message, and was further extended when President Trump raised the prospect of tariff increases, makes the next move even harder for the Fed. Markets now anticipate a succession of rate cuts through year-end, at least in part to offset the impact of trade concerns, but also to offset any hit to market confidence. Increasingly, it looks like the Fed is being pushed toward actions that it is less able to justify on the basis of the central bank’s dual mandate of stable prices and maximum employment, highlighting our theme of “Ongoing Policy Tensions.”

    Against a backdrop of slower growth and concerns that profit margins have peaked, global equities as a whole are not cheap, in our analysis. Any further market confusion over the Fed’s delivery of rate cuts might hurt market stability. Having taken a more cautious stance on risk assets over the first half of the year, we continue to believe navigating the challenges 2019 presents will require nimble management.