US-China trade truce leaves markets with big questions

Posted at 6:47 AM, Jun 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-01 03:52:23-04

1. US-China truce: Markets will like the news that the United States and China reached a temporary trade truce this weekend in Japan, where US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to table new tariffs and continue negotiations.

But uncertainty about whether a meaningful agreement can be finalized could loom over markets in the second half of the year.

Existing tariffs remain in place and will continue to hit businesses. And the administration’s position on Chinese tech giant Huawei remains murky, which could make the tech sector jittery.

“The temporary agreement does little to resolve the fundamental conflicts over trade issues that broke down talks in May and does not amount to a sustainable solution for Huawei,” wrote analysts at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

Global stock markets rallied spectacularly in the first six months of 2019. The S&P 500 jumped more than 17%, recently notching an all-time high. The Dow increaseda similarly impressive 14%.

In China, those gains were even greater. The Shanghai Composite rose more than 20%. (Hong Kong’s Hang Seng saw a more moderate 10% increase.)

Yet there have been signs of fragility. When Trump suddenly said he would increase tariffs on China in May, stocks plummeted. And most analysts attribute their current levels in large part to the assumption that the US Federal Reserve will cut interest rates in July. Chairman Jerome Powell has indicated that a rate cut could be in the cards, but the timing and magnitude of any move remains an open question.

The decision by the United States and China to keep talking could slightly improve sentiment among business leaders as they look toward the future.

The main problem is that US tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods remain in place, as do Chinese retaliatory tariffs on US exports. That will continue to hit corporate profits. And the longer these tariffs remain in force, the more companies think about spending to shift their supply chains — an expensive endeavor that could prohibit spending in other areas.

The US position on Huawei also remains ambiguous.

Trump said this weekend that he would again allow US companies to ship components to Huawei that don’t threaten US national security, an apparent reversal after his administration blacklisted the smartphone and telecom equipment maker in May. He cited pressure from US tech companies as contributing to his decision.

It’s not clear, however, exactly how the United States will alter its export ban to meet this standard, and whether it will give Huawei access to crucial US parts for all lines of its business. The Trump administration also faces significant domestic political pressure to continue its broadside against Huawei, which US politicians agree poses a national security threat.

“Trump’s intermingling of Huawei and trade talks makes both more complex,” the Eurasia Group analysts said.

2. OPEC meeting: OPEC meets in Vienna on Monday and Tuesday. The main agenda item: whether member countries will extend production cuts that expire at the end of June.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have reportedly already agreed to extend cuts by six to nine months.

S&P Global Platts predicts that the group will agree to rollover current cuts through the end of the year, but won’t move to trim production any further. Markets agree.

Such a move could prop up prices at a volatile moment. Oil has been on a wild ride with conflicting signals making it difficult to guess if prices are broadly heading higher or lower.

Brent crude, the global benchmark, finished Friday at $66.55, up 2% for the week. US prices rose 1.8% to $58.47.

Geopolitical tensions in Iran and Venezuela have raised concerns about constricted supply, pushing prices higher. Yet there’s also been recent evidence of excess supply as global economic growth slows. Higher stockpiles drove oil into a bear market earlier in the month.

3. Jobs report: The US Labor Department will release its monthly jobs report on Friday.

Economists polled by Refinitiv expect the unemployment rate remained at a steady 3.6%, with the addition of 165,000 jobs. That would represent a bounce back from the 75,000 jobs added in May, but a slight slowdown from the 175,000 jobs created on average over the past six months.

Any sign of growing weakness could send stocks lower and bolster the case for a big interest rate cut from the Federal Reserve in July.

Other indicators, such as consumer sentiment and durable goods orders, have been dragged down in recent months, in part because of ongoing trade tensions.

4. India’s economy: The Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will publish a key economic report and present its annual budget this week as it tries to get its economy back on track.

GDP growth slumped to 5.8% in the quarter ended March — the slowest rate in two years — meaning India lost the title of world’s fastest growing major economy to China.

And things may be even worse than official figures indicate. A former government adviser warned earlier this month that growth in recent years may have been “a significant overestimation” because of a change in the way it was calculated.

5. Coming next week:

Monday — OPEC meeting; US and German manufacturing data
Tuesday — German retail sales
Wednesday — US markets half day; US balance of trade for May
Thursday — US markets closed
Friday — US jobs report