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Global policy adjusts to the surprising effects of trade wars

China was expected to be the main casualty, but that has not been the case so far.

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Above: Tianjin port. China has performed relatively well, amid the tariff wars. Supply disruptions to global value chains have so far been largely absent, and domestic demand has been steady.

AT the end of 2018, policy-makers were still assessing the immediate effects of US President Donald Trump's trade wars. The US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank (ECB) both believed that the damage to their domestic economies would be small and temporary, leaving them on course to "normalise" monetary policy by raising policy interest rates as inflation rose towards target. 

In China, there was pessimism about the damaging effect of US tariffs on the economy and scepticism about whether new forms of policy easing would work this time. It was therefore widely assumed that Beijing would make significant concessions to the US to reach a settlement with the Trump administration on tariffs and technology.

Just months later, the policy environment looks very different. Chinese growth has performed relatively well. Supply disruptions to global value chains have so far been largely absent and domestic demand has responded to fiscal and monetary stimulus.

By contrast, uncertainty about tariffs and plummeting car sales have caused a major contractionary demand shock to capital investment in the advanced economies, hitting manufacturing-led economies such as Germany extremely hard. Recession risks in Europe have in turn had an impact on US activity, interest rates and monetary policy.

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Here are three policy themes for the rest of 2019:

  • China is increasingly confident it can weather the trade wars

While Mr Trump has claimed that economic data proves China has "lost" the tariff wars, Chinese policy-makers are probably reassured by the latest activity data in their economy. The mix of old-style and new-style fiscal and monetary easing has stabilised the downturn.

True, the official 2019 second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) statistics showed the growth rate slowing to 6.2 per cent year-on- year, the lowest rate for more than two decades. But activity seems to have recovered towards the end of the quarter, and the latest Fulcrum nowcast shows growth running at close to 7 per cent.

Consumption has responded well to tax cuts and infrastructure investment has rebounded as local government debt issuance has surged.

More surprisingly, while exports have dropped 1.5 per cent in the past 12 months, imports have dropped 7.8 per cent. Consequently, net trade, which is the variable that contributes towards GDP and activity growth, has actually been far more positive than it was in 2018. 

These figures may explain China's tougher recent line on the trade talks. Beijing's refusal to accept more aggressive demands from the Trump administration disrupted progress in negotiations with Washington in early May and was fully explained in a hawkish Chinese white paper in early June.

With China's trade policy hawks apparently now ready to sit out a long conflict with the US, confident their domestic economy can withstand the shock, a settlement to the trade war seems unlikely when talks resume this week.

  • The ECB acknowledges the limits of monetary policy

The failure of the euro zone economy to bounce back from what was supposed to be a temporary slowdown late last year has been one of the biggest disappointments of 2019. 

Unlike previous European downturns, Germany has been the weakest of the major EU economies, partly because of the crash in the global car industry. The country's capital goods exports have also suffered from the weakness in worldwide investment expenditure.

Last week, ECB president Mario Draghi admitted that the euro zone economy may not rebound in H2 2019, as previously expected.

The ECB has also been concerned about declining consumer price expectations, as measured in the bond market. In the downturn of 2016, 10-year inflation expectations remained consistent with the bank's 2 per cent inflation target, this year expectations across all time horizons have converged towards 1 per cent.

This "Japanification" of the euro zone is increasingly worrying the central bank. It is now explicitly describing its inflation target as "symmetrical", implying that it will no longer tolerate prolonged periods in which inflation is below 2 per cent. It is clearly ready to reduce interest rates further, and resume the asset purchase programme in September.

However, as in Japan, the scope for monetary policy to end deflationary forces in the euro zone is limited, and the governing council seems to recognise this.

Mr Draghi has explicitly asked for fiscal support to boost the region's economy, which would represent a fundamental shift in the ECB's established beliefs. He believes that any worsening of the shocks hitting the manufacturing sector, especially in Germany, can only be addressed by targeted fiscal injections, not by region-wide monetary expansion.

His responses in his Q&A session last week and in his recent Sintra speech are more aggressive than the consensus on the governing council. Incoming president Christine Lagarde may have to work hard to build an accord on this. 

  • The Federal Reserve sees the importance of the rest of the world

Recently, I argued that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) may be contemplating something more fundamental than a couple of precautionary "insurance" cuts in policy rates. This suspicion has been reinforced by extremely dovish remarks from several leading officials, including the Fed chairman, Jay Powell.

His latest speech argued that low inflation may be structural and persistent, warned that global factors might be responsible for weaker activity in the US and emphasised that equilibrium interest rates have fallen throughout the world and that monetary policy is far more interconnected than ever before.

The idea that ultra-low global bond yields are setting the agenda for the Fed is scarcely a new theme in the international bond markets, but it is now explicitly embraced by the leadership of the FOMC. This factor, combined with the belief that US policy should be adjusted quickly and decisively to adverse economic conditions when interest rates are near the zero lower bound - as John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has said - should keep the Fed in extremely dovish mood for the remainder of 2019. FT

  • The writer is chairman of Fulcrum Asset Management and co-founder of Prisma Capital Partners. He was the head of the global economics department at Goldman Sachs from 1987-2001, and chairman of the BBC from 2001-2004. He has also served as an economic policy adviser in No 10 Downing Street, an external adviser to the British Treasury, and as a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.